Let’s get the prurient stuff out of the way: The ever-magnetic Michael Fassbender does indeed go the full monty in Steve ‘Not That One’ McQueen’s captivating NYC-set drama about a sex addict and his abrasive sis. (Run away, former lettin’-it-all-hang-out champ Ewan McGregor!) Done tittering? Cool, now we can talk about how Fassbender brings much more than his natural physical gifts to the role of coitus-obsessed white-collar grunt Brandon, whom we meet splayed across rumpled sheets in the first of the film’s many striking widescreen images.
As played by this great actor, Brandon is both god and ghost – a man who can seemingly bed any woman he wishes, as long as he keeps his deeper feelings in check. He’s merely a hot body that requires constant gratification, nothing more. When his estranged sibling Sissy (Mulligan) reinsinuates herself into his life, it majorly fucks up his mojo because he suddenly has to give a damn about someone. (There’s a disturbing implication that this pattern of abandonment and intrusion is a vicious cycle for the duo.) Emotions well up like the operatic score that occasionally surges over the clinically composed visuals, while a long sequence where Brandon listens to Sissy sing a discomfitingly mediocre rendition of ‘New York, New York’ is an acting master class; the brother’s barely repressed loathing is as thick as a humid summer day. McQueen’s view of sex and our city sometimes treads close to laughable pretension, as when Brandon has a lost-weekend three-way that’s a bit too emphatic. Yet Fassbender and his multifaceted allure helps counteract any thematic or conceptual shakiness, as was the case in McQueen’s highly uneven debut, Hunger. One thing’s for sure: McQueen has found his De Niro, and he’d better keep him close.