Most film titles are arbitrary and easily interchangeable (check this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominations for nine of them). Few play as important a role in establishing tone as Shame, the word hanging over director Steve McQueen’s cold and brooding character study about a sex addict named Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender.

Shame suggests guilt, self-reproach, dishonour, degradation — associations that colour the film in a pessimistic hue well before it drills beneath the surface of its protagonist’s busy but vacuous lifestyle. Combined with the stare-right-through-you stoicism of Fassbender’s performance, the baggage of the title render his character incapable of innocently glancing at anybody, or even, when the film hits its sleazy stride, buying groceries without looking like he’s mentally molested every woman within a three block radius.

A heavy, heaving score accompanies images of Fassbender’s steely face as Brandon glumly lives a day to day routine consisting of sex with prostitutes, colleagues and randoms, plus intermittent masturbation and porn watching. The real shame is not his sexual exploits but his relationship with his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who moves into his apartment and acts as a screenwriting tool to expose the darkness within.

The film plays it careful and subtle — there’s meaningless sex, yes, and shots of Fassbender’s nether region, yes, but no outlandish dramatic jolts — until a crass ending arrives, more about delivering a final moral judgement of the character than texturing his emotional grays.

Shame is full of strong and vivid moments, often in the form of simple events and interactions: Brandon’s silent flirtation with a woman on a train, a tracking shot of him jogging through the city, a compelling, oddly placed, lingering scene in a club in which we watch Sissy sing New York New York.

There is a sense that little is organising the arrangement of these scenes, no cohesive whole emotionally or logically. In absence of a glue sticking the plot tangents together, Shame is best viewed as a collection of well directed vignettes. Like the protagonist, the film seems to be searching for a point, a fluent narrative, a reason for being, but never turns the corner. If that’s an intentional reflection of content onto structure, it’s a nice fit. And too clever by half.

Shame’s Australian theatrical release date: February 16, 2012.