There is a momentous middle scene in Shame, the second film directed by Steve McQueen, which is cathartic for protagonist and audience alike. It also offers one of the few hopeful moments in the film’s otherwise bleak landscape.

Brandon Sullivan (a mesmerising Michael Fassbender) ferociously fills garbage bag after garbage bag with the objects that feed his addiction to sex – pornographic magazines and films, sex toys, and most significantly, his laptop. Dumped as waste, curbside, the removal of these objects opens the prospect of change, the possibility of a ‘normal’ life. He is at a crossroads, where will he go.

The elimination of the laptop is important. It’s the laptop, all computer technology really, that helps Brandon’s addiction flourish, control, and ultimately consume his every waking moment. The laptop gives him access to porn, after hours in the privacy of his home, and as we learn, during work hours too. Call girls are a mere phone call away. It’s ‘satisfaction’ at the press of a button – immediate, impersonal, anonymous, and seemingly uncomplicated.

In an interview, McQueen has offered himself as a moralist (not be confused with moralising) filmmaker. And Shame is a serious film that poses some big questions about the world we live in today. How do we connect in what the filmmakers clearly see as a disconnected age? How is technology changing, for better or worse, our relationship with sex, our own bodies, with each other, and the whole notion of intimacy itself? Shame raises all these questions but don’t expect any neat and tidy resolutions by the time the screen fades to black.

The opening scenes set up who Brandon is as we see him waking in the morning, an unnamed woman lying beside him. His face conveys the strained expression of a man who has been to the brink but clawed his way back just before it was too late. He lays still, corpse like; his eyes betray nothing, his body a prison. He eventually pulls the sheet aside and gets up.

The daily routine unfolds, driven by a compulsion that can never be satisfied. He walks, listlessly around his apartment. He masturbates in the shower. He avoids interacting with the increasingly frantic female voice leaving messages on his answering machine. We see him travel into work via the subway where he locks eyes with a young woman. Her face discloses a range of emotions including anxiety and desire. She’s married, and when it looks like he has her within his grasp, anxiety wins and she loses him inside the chaotic subway crowd.

The point of view is Brandon’s and McQueen challenges us to feel empathy for an extreme character who may end up being more like the rest of us than we initially think. The opening sequence sets up Brandon’s problematic existence for us. While he doesn’t wake alone, he is positioned at a distance from the body beside him. He isn’t basking in the afterglow of a wonderful night. Detachment and isolation define the mood from the outset. And the almost complete absence of dialogue in these scenes cements this view of Brandon’s solitary world.

When we meet him, Brandon is essentially a functioning sex addict – not self-satisfied in any way by his conquests, but suffering in their pursuit. His addiction is both isolating and dependent on his isolation from others. He is still an addict when the film ends. On the surface he seems to have it all and to keep it all together. Good looks and a good wardrobe, a sleek, modern apartment, some kind of executive job with a corner office. He is, as his boss David announces, ‘The man.’

But underneath this controlled surface, Brandon is a mess. Every moment of his day is constructed around the need for sexual release, the need to lose himself in orgasm. It is this need that propels him forward. I’ll stay away from describing it as an obsession with sex – for me, this suggests something many people might have in varying degrees, or so we are led to believe by the media. More importantly, this categorisation suggests the pursuit and attainment of pleasure. And it is difficult to detect any trace of this in Brandon’s encounters, which are cold, mechanical and performative.

What ails Brandon is a physical condition – a primal wound that refuses to heal. What that wound is and the fact that we will never know is either a source of extreme frustration for the viewer or one of the film’s uncompromising strengths. With every hollow encounter he tries to disappear. Despite running from warm bodies and intimacy, what ails Brandon is all about feeling. He feels bad about something – he has sex to try and feel better. But he ends up feeling worse. Sex, here, punishes the flesh. Release is agony. Another little part of him lost, forever erased.

When Brandon’s carefully controlled world starts to unravel it does so with such a brutal intensity that you imagine his skin being flayed under his well-manicured veneer. It starts to unravel, of course, at the point where human connections, unmediated by technology and commerce, become a real and frightening possibility.

The first catalyst is the arrival of his younger sister, the emotionally ravaged Sissy (an equally mesmerising Carey Mulligan). She arrives, hospital band still round her wrist (blink, and you will literally miss it, I almost did), to stay for an unspecified time in his apartment. Brandon is surprised to see her in his shower although she has called him several times. We heard her in the film’s opening scenes when we didn’t know who the voice belonged to. He lets her stay. Later, she places a desperate phone call to someone she loves. We piece together that all is not well – she has a depressive streak and she drinks too much. To heal, she attempts to reconnect with the brother whose love she clearly needs.

Brother and sister are an exercise in opposition. Where Brandon is cool, angular and controlled, Sissy is soft, clingy and messy. This repels Brandon – he describes her behaviour as ‘disgusting’ in its neediness because she uses sex in a quest to find what Brandon uses it to flee from – warmth, connection, some kind of love.

Despite these contrasts, Brandon and Sissy are linked through a shared trauma. What this trauma is remains unnamed and undefined – the most concrete clue McQueen allows us is Sissy’s line to her brother that ‘we’re not bad people … we just come from a bad place.’ A number of critics have pointed to the ease that the siblings have around each other’s bodies as evidence of incest, or that sexual abuse of some kind has led to their adult sexual dysfunction. I could speculate endless scenarios about their history, but I won’t.

For whatever reason, neither has imposed any boundaries on their bodies, although Brandon has certainly fenced off his heart. The lasting effect of this ‘freedom’ is that both Brandon and Sissy are incapable of forming lasting, or even fleeting relationships, least of all with each other.

Sissy shakes up his routine – this goes without saying. Late night sex rendezvous and hours spent online become difficult, impossible, with little sister on the couch. When she discovers one of his online play dates who knows him by name (not long before he condemns her for sleeping with his boss twenty minutes after meeting him) Sissy fights back, ‘Don’t talk to me about sex life Brandon, not you.’

But Sissy doesn’t only encroach Brandon’s physical space she also trespasses into his emotional life. She gets under his skin and forces him to feel things. Sissy needs connection and to be cared for, which Brandon describes as a ‘burden … a weight around my neck.’ She sees into his dark heart and he feels trapped, telling her she forces him into a corner. Perhaps he is moved so deeply by Sissy’s stirring rendition of ‘New York, New York,’ because it exposes a secret and he finally has nowhere to hide.

The threat of intimacy is exacerbated further when Brandon takes an attractive colleague out for dinner. He is nervous with Marianne (Nicole Beharie) as he goes through the motions of a conventional date. Not sure how to impress her, he is perhaps too honest in his admission that he doesn’t believe in marriage and in revealing that he hasn’t had a relationship last longer than 4 months, despite trying to ‘commit.’ McQueen lingers at the restaurant table. We are on the date with them. Brandon is awkward; he fumbles and in his mouth, basic human interactions sound contrived. He is, as he says, pointing to a scar on his forehead, a Neanderthal. When Brandon leaves Marianne at the entrance to the subway, without so much as a kiss, you sense that he is a stranger to ‘dates’ that end this way.

Seeing an opportunity to live a ‘normal life’ (not a phrase I will often employ in these pages), Brandon returns home and cleans up.

In the days that follow, Brandon seems focused on pursuing a more genuine connection with Marianne. He corners her in the office and kisses her. He suggests they get out of there and he takes her to a hotel room in lower Manhattan with curtain-less windows, similar to where, as he walked to their dinner date, he had witnessed a couple fucking up against the glass – on display for all the city to see.

What follows is, I think, the most difficult scene in the film to watch. What starts as a playful and sexy encounter between two people who are clearly into each other – such a contrast to the cold, lonely expressions of sex we have seen to this point – manifests into a humiliating, soul-crushing confrontation that triggers Brandon’s downward spiral. Thrown by the prospect of sex that involves feelings and a ‘real’ person, Brandon is unable to perform. The impact of this realisation is devastating.

You can’t help but ask why Brandon has brought her to this sort of open space, with its potential for exhibition over intimacy. But I think the space is important. As he revealed in his first film, Hunger (2008), McQueen understands the way that the space we live in – or, in the case of both films, exist in – helps to shape us.

In Shame, spaces and surfaces construct a very specific world of isolation and imprisonment – within offices, bars, and barren apartments and hotel rooms, but most importantly, between people. Shame is a night film and the city – Manhattan specifically here, but any pulsing metropolis would have sufficed – is a major player in Brandon’s story. The city is an enabler, providing easy satisfaction at the turn of a dial, the press of a button. It’s a city teeming with people, but no one can get close. Even Brandon’s boss, David, communicates with his own son via Skype.

Although the sex angle is what most critics have focused, it’s also true that sex addiction acts as a vehicle for exploring bigger problems. And in this reading I would say that Shame presents a damning portrait of urban life, loneliness and the solitary self. Brandon is as empty as the city he lives in, slowly decaying like the streets he runs through at night. As McQueen sees it, the grim metropolis magnifies the space between us. Here is a world where no one sees the real you and no one cares what you are doing, what harm you may be doing yourself or why. It’s these ideas that allow the viewer in, to a story that might otherwise alienate them. Because we all feel alone, disenfranchised and harried by the increasing complexities of modern life, at some time.

It would not be an overstatement to say that the film is profoundly unsettling on every level – from Brandon’s relationship with Sissy to his relationship with himself and his own body, to the staging of the sex scenes, to how the viewer feels while watching all this unfold. But I mean this as a compliment, as a way to emphasise Shame’s two main strengths. It is visceral and empathetic filmmaking at its absolute best. Like Hunger, you feel it in your guts when you watch. If it was McQueen’s goal to trap you in Brandon’s hell, he achieves this. We are right in there with him and it doesn’t feel good.

That French phrase, le petite mort (the little death) is often used as a metaphor for orgasm. It is a persuasive concept here. Certainly some little part of Brandon dies with every emission. Sex here, stripped of pleasure, increases solitude. Brandon is trapped in the casket, on a lonely road to self-destruction. Where will it end?

McQueen’s camera creates a distance – especially in the film’s symphonic final descent into the sexual abyss – but he does this to bring us closer. Fassbender is an actor of tremendous depth and empathy. Because of him, by the film’s final scene, you really care what happens next. You hope Brandon will be okay, even if you will never know if he is.