A study of extreme sexual dysfunction which at once takes its subject seriously – almost all other films about satyrisis (cf: Shampoo) have a comic edge and at least partially pander to wish-fulfilment porn fantasies – and sets it in a slightly stylised, American Psycho-ish New York that eliminates external concerns like social realism to concentrate on its protagonists’ literally fucked-up life.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender, looking as if every part of his body were chiselled) has some sort of non-job in a skyscraper corporation, but is otherwise exclusively occupied with sex which seems to count as masturbation even when he has actual partners. Bar pick-ups, a variety of hookers and even a session in a gay encounter hole out of Irreversible mean as much to him as his consumption of porn via computer and video in his workplace and home and his frequent trips to the office bathroom for quick hand relief. Naturally, this permanent erection keeps getting him in embarrassing or dangerous situations: when his work computer is examined by the company’s IT guys (and is full of every variety of filth, including ‘interracial facial’), when his sister catches him masturbating in the bathroom (not for the first time, we assume), when his scoring with a businesswoman ticks off his boss (David Badge Dale) by ramming home that he’s a serious pro in casual sex while the family man boss (who sleeps with the sister) just imagines himself a player, when his explicit verbal come-on in a bar just gets him beaten up by an annoyed boyfriend. At one point, Brandon has a date with a just-divorced work colleague (Nicole Beharie) who is spooked by his frank cynicism about actual relationships but might get past his armour. With her, he turns out to be impotent – even though he’s able to perform with a call girl in the same glass-walled high-rise hotel room a few hours later.
The vague trigger for the minimal plot, which is a descent from hell into a lower depth of hell, is a visit by the bluntly-named Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Like Cassavetes’ Love Streams and Altman/Shepard’s Fool for Love, there’s a feint suggesting the leads are current or ex-lovers before it turns out that they’re siblings with only a possible incestuous backstory. Sissy has one of those coolly impossible movie singing jobs: her act consists of whisper-cooing one single number (‘New York New York’) in a restaurant where everyone shuts up to listen, after which she’s free to sit with her brother and show off how crazy she is. Plainly a flake, she has scarred wrists and her climactic suicide attempt coincides with Brandon’s lowest moments – not the infernal cruising maze (the film is careful to not make bisexuality an ultimate horror) but a down-on-his-knees howl of existential misery and aloneness. However, it’s bracketed with moments that show he won’t change, as he wordlessly meets the gaze of a pretty girl (Lucy Walters) on the subway.
Director Steve McQueen goes for a steel-and-glass-and-concrete world, with toned flesh pumping anerotically but explicitly. Even though the participants are good-looking to glossy magazine standards (and appear frankly naked), the sex is presented mechanically. McQueen makes a point of adding in moments that evoke a strong physical reaction, as when Fassbender takes a piss without putting the toilet seat up (scenes like this always push me out of the film – I can’t help but think of the actor downing gallons of water so he can urinate to cue, and the hassles if there’s a lighting problem with the take) or has a sudden guilt-spasm purge of his porn stash that includes dumping his laptop into a bin bag and then scraping pasta leftovers in on top of it. Co-scripted by Abi Morgan, raising her game from the tin-eared The Hour.