Like his debut feature, Hunger, Steve McQueen's second film is about one man's incandescent urgency.
In the first film it was Irish Republican fervour; here, it's unassuageable lust. Michael Fassbender once again plays the man, a New York exec named Brandon who spends office hours grunting in the loo and all other hours having sex – with hookers, random pick-ups, threesomes. At home his apartment is an immaculate, sterile space of wooden floors and white walls. At work, the nature of which is never specified, his computer is leprous with porn (they don't call it a hard drive for nothing). He is known, in modern parlance, as a sex addict, that forgiving PC term for what's essentially a shagger who gets caught. Brandon's round-the-clock priapism is interrupted by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), whose needy, damaged personality puts his own into unwelcome perspective: he's too used to being alone.
The cold calculation of McQueen's style is repellent but not uninteresting. The hard, glinting surfaces of New York are balanced against the endless close-ups of faces to convey a sense of loneliness and desperation – though not, as far as one can tell, of shame. Mulligan is unhappily cast in the victim role, lacking true sass and shrinking before the camera's gaze as she performs a leaden "New York, New York" on stage (the song is slowed unto death). What keeps the film going, even at its most bloodless, is Fassbender and that angular, chiselled face of his. This isn't a role to compare with his Rochester in Jane Eyre, or his straying teen-fancier in Fish Tank, but he's very good at suggesting Brandon's disfiguring social blankness. Out on a "proper" date, without the motor of sex, he hardly knows what to do – even ordering food or choosing a bottle of wine seems to bore him utterly. Emotional nullity matched to stylistic impersonality isn't a winning combination, but the film almost gets away with it thanks to Fassbender's trapped satyr, writhing in the flames of his own porno hell.