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Shame (18); Margin Call (15)

Stories of sex and finance reveal New York’s seamy side.

Shame (18); Margin Call (15)
dir: Steve McQueen; dir: J C Chandor

Have you had your five-a-day? Brandon Sullivan, the high-flyer played by Michael Fassbender in Shame, always makes sure he gets his - though in his case we're talking about orgasms rather than aubergines. Barely has he opened his laptop than his antiseptic Manhattan apartment is filled with more disembodied moans than a haunted house. Prostitutes troop in and out of his bedroom with a frequency that demands the introduction of a loyalty card. At the office, he masturbates in the toilet stall or floods his hard drive with more porn. Yet he still finds time to impress his boss, who crows that Brandon "nailed it today" - neglecting only to specify exactly what, or whom, got nailed. With Brandon around, it's anyone's guess.

Into his tightly ordered life spills his kid sister, Sissy (Mulligan), who arrives trailing an entire carousel's worth of emotional baggage. Where Brandon hides within an armour-like grey wool coat, Sissy is as brazen as her floppy crimson hat. When he surprises her in the shower, she doesn't reach for so much as a loofah to preserve her modesty. (I hear the voice of Principal Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off: "So that's how it is in their family . . .") The film's most electrifying sequence has Sissy performing a decelerated version of "New York, New York" in a restaurant. Over almost five minutes, the camera scarcely moves from her dim sum face.

As persuasive as Mulligan is, she can't disguise Sissy's function as the catalyst for Brandon's redemption. From the moment she stands with her toes peeking over the edge of a subway platform, most of us will be mentally dialling the Samaritans on her behalf. But then how would all the self-destructive men in cinema find salvation without the sacrifices made by self-destructive women?

Following Hunger, his tactile study of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, Steve McQueen has again cast Fassbender as a single-minded, emotionally barricaded loner with the initials B S. There is, of course, another kind of B S, and while I would be loath to use that expression to describe Shame, I think McQueen and his co-writer, Abi Morgan, could have dropped the "e" from their movie's title. Despite ferociously honest performances, the film deals from a stacked deck that would raise eyebrows in the most corrupt casino.

The peculiarity of Shame is that it regards Brandon as incidental in his own addiction. As the film presents it, the world around him is to blame. When he tries to walk away from sex, it follows him: a woman to whom he has paid no attention pulls up to offer him a lift. They have sex against a wall on which the word "Fuck" is scrawled; it reads less like an obscenity than an imperative. McQueen succeeds in draining eroticism from sex, just as Sean Bobbitt's dislocated cinematography makes New York look implausibly desolate. A more sophisticated picture would have contrasted Brandon less favourably with other men, to give him (and us) an idea of what he's missing in his narcissistic solitude, yet the film portrays him as a god by comparison: his boss is a married father who pants after every available woman, while other men are thugs or simpering nitwits. It's difficult to imagine a greater vindication of Brandon's lifestyle.

Disco numbers on the soundtrack ("Genius of Love", "I Want Your Love") rib him about what he can't have, or isn't capable of getting. All he hears in his head, even during energetic sex with two prostitutes, is Glenn Gould playing Bach. The music is used to sanctify him and to legitimise an analysis of masculinity every bit as frothy as the one found in Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women.

For a film that fancies itself as raw, Shame can also be unworldly. When Brandon is at his ­lowest ebb, having been beaten up and spat upon, the most degrading act the film can imagine for him is to seek gratification in a gay club drenched in sulphurous red light. Somehow, I think he's been through worse.

While Brandon is having his breakdown in one corner of New York, a more far-reaching catastrophe is brewing on Wall Street. Employees of an investment firm have just realised that the projected losses of their department alone outstrip the value of the entire company. Welcome to Margin Call - everything you always wanted to know about the financial crisis but didn't have time to listen to Robert Peston hemming and hawing about. From the loyal employee (Stanley Tucci) clutching his belongings in a cardboard box, to the vampiric CEO (Jeremy Irons) who instructs his staff to flog everything short of the carpets, the movie itemises the effect of the impending meltdown on each link in the corporate food chain.

This is a necessarily talky film and it's refreshing that its writer-director, J C Chandor, has liberated the script from the Mamet-speak associated with this milieu. He specialises in understatement and insinuation and keeps the camera tight on his actors' faces. But there's an immaturity in his recourse to the symbolic: the hedonistic manager (Paul Bettany) reflecting from the rooftop, "It's a long way down", or the corporate veteran (Kevin Spacey) nursing his dying dog. The mutt isn't called Hope or America but it may as well be.

Margin Call is dutifully rather than beautifully made, with a battalion of strong performances, not least from New York as itself. In Shame, the Manhattan skyline at night resembles a quivering blue tightrope. In Margin Call, the early-morning city is seen through the rusty eyes of men who haven't slept and can only squint at the calamitous dawn now breaking.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain