Let's just get this out of the way. In this movie, you see Michael
Fassbender's penis, and yes he has a very large member, but, before you
start getting any ideas, you see way more breasts and vaginas in this
movie than you see of Fassbender's pants-less form. Fassbender plays
Brandon, a person who is described as a sex addict, so all the nudity
and graphic sex are necessary. The only problem is that I don't think
the filmmakers make the case that Brandon really is a sex addict.
The one indication that Brandon might be a sex addict is the fact that a lot of pornography is discovered on the hard drive of his computer at work. His boss and friend, David, played by James Badge Dale (24 and The Pacific), thinks that the porn was put there by someone else, so the whole incident is brushed off. Even though it feels like more is going to be made of it, it's not. Therefore, if the filmmakers don't make more of it, why should I?
The other evidence that points to Brandon's sex addiction is the fact that he's a single guy in New York City who is having a lot of random and meaningless sex. If that's the evidence, however, then there are millions of men, not only in New York but in other cities, who are sex addicts too. At one point, Brandon goes on a date with a co-worker named Marianne, played by Nicole Beharie (American Violet and The Express). The date is awkward, but it reveals that Brandon doesn't believe in monogamy, or at least he doesn't believe in long-term relationships.
Yes, not believing in long-term relationships is pretty suspect, but if not believing in monogamy was an indication, then there are a ton of Mormons who are also sex addicts. Towards the end of the movie, Brandon visits a gay nightclub where he witnesses a lot of anonymous and random gay sex. Knowing queer cinema, this is a scene that has been depicted numerous times. Is director Steve McQueen trying to say that all gay men are sex addicts? I don't think so, but what other conclusion can I come to?
I don't think that McQueen is making a case to say that Brandon is bisexual. He's supposedly so desperate for sex that he goes gay for a minute. This makes no sense though and it also doesn't fit with his behavior up until that point. Maybe there are examples in real life, but I doubt a sex addiction could make a person change his sexual orientation. If so, Brandon would just be at the gay nightclub all the time.
What we see Brandon do is not that much different from what many, many other men do like masturbate to porn, so unless McQueen is saying all men are sex addicts, this movie does not make the case that Brandon is. The film critics at Filmspotting, the podcast and radio show on WBEZ in Chicago, claim that McQueen isn't trying to make any proclamations about sex addiction and that he's merely trying to show something else.
I might be inclined to agree with that, but then the question is, what is that something else? What's undeniable is that Brandon certainly is someone who's anti-social. Brandon exhibits a boatload of anti-social behavior. It's unclear what the root of that is. He tries to connect with Marianne, but ultimately can't. He does hang out with David. He's not like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, even though he does have a bizarre threesome.
McQueen has clearly put together a character study, but one that only focuses on the symptoms of a problem and that never goes any deeper. The chance for depth is there. Brandon's sister, Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan (An Education and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), arrives and throws a monkey wrench in her brother's anti-social ways. As the critics for Filmspotting note, this avenue to open Brandon up is blocked off, which is refreshing if you're a filmmaker who doesn't want to be predictable, but it sadly leaves the audience with nothing.
McQueen impressed many with his film Hunger, which also starred Fassbender. Many, including myself, enjoyed a signature long one-shot in that movie. McQueen attempts similar shots in this film that don't have the same effect, the same power. It's mainly because I don't feel the material measures up and shows us less than what that one-shot in Hunger showed us.
One example is a long one-shot of Mulligan singing. Aside from displaying her vocal abilities, I didn't see the point of the scene or why it had to be so long. Mulligan has a Marilyn Monroe-vibe, but I feel like it drags and keeps us from the next scene, which is way more insightful to Brandon's character.
Fassbender, nonetheless, gives a great performance. While it might not be likely, I wouldn't object to Fassbender getting an Oscar nomination for this. He's great in almost every moment, but two in particular stand out. The first follows his sister's singing where he becomes a third wheel or, as he puts it, "cornered." The second time is during his threesome. Fassbender's face in this moment could in fact be the picture that is put in the dictionary or on a Wikipedia page under the definition of "shame." It's either that or the look of sad or depressing ecstasy. It's a look on his face that really hits you.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 40 mins.