Hey folks. Hans back here with a review of a truly great film, Hunger.
Hunger is an uncompromising depiction of human suffering fed through the eye of a true artist. This film doesn’t just exist on the screen and play out as a series of images–it smells, breathes, aches and yearns. It’s texture is as brutal as its story, which examines Irish Republican Army soldiers who, as prisoners of the British in 1981, engaged in protest of their prison conditions in an effort to attain political status as prisoners of war.
They first engaged in a “blanket” and “no wash” protest, refusing to wear prison uniforms or to bathe. When that failed to move the British, they began a hunger strike in which ten men ultimately died. We learn over the end credits that Thatcher eventually granted the prisoners demands without ever formally acknowledging their political status.
Walking into this film, I was expecting a genuflection to the horror of political martyrdom; something akin to Jim Sheridan’s great In the Name of the Father. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. The film is directed by Steve McQueen (no relation to the Bullit star), an experimental artist who works with film exhibitions. Black, Irish, and burning with a fire of angry desperation, he isn’t so much interested in the political ramifications of the standoff between the prisoners and their captors, but in the horror of the standoff itself. Figures like Thatcher exist only as disembodied voices, spewing rhetoric at the political pulpit far away from the frontlines. McQueen’s film lives on these frontlines, where the British and their prisoners engage in daily acts of violence and brutality, never backing down, locked in a stalemate. Hunger depicts the moral and physical decay that goes along with this stalemate, as both sides return to a state of pure barbarism in the name of an armed struggle.
The film tells its story in three stages. The first engages the struggle of a sensitive guard (Stuart Graham) who leaves his suburban life to perform daily acts of brutality against prisoners. We get many shots of his bloody knuckles as he bathes them in water, and later find out just how he comes by his injuries. The second follows the no wash and blanket protests through the experiences of two prisoners (Brian Milligan and Liam McMahon). The third follows the hunger strike and the death of the prisoners’ leader, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender).
To say the film is difficult to watch is an understatement for the ages. The scenes of the no wash and blanket protests show us the loss of human dignity in graphic detail. Men are forced to strip off their clothes and wrap their naked bodies in blankets, before being taken to solitary confinement cells. But these prisoners will use anything they can to fight back; they wipe their excrement on the walls of their cells, leave prison food in corners to attract maggots and flies, pour their urine onto the floor so that it will leak into the corridor outside. For every protest though, the British have an answer. They pull prisoners by force and drag them down the halls for bloody haircuts and a quick throw into a bathtub. When they need to examine the prisoners for lice, the set up a line of officers with billy clubs to beat them into submission. McQueen’s emphasis is on the routine of the violent exchanges; there is one great, very long shot where the prisoners dump their urine into the corridor and a maintenance man mops it up, eradicating all evidence of their protest.
Out of this stalemate comes Sands, a leader and radical who sees the hunger strike as the only way the British will give. He explains this in the film’s key scene, where he sits down with a priest (Liam Cunningham) in the prison visiting room. McQueen and his co-writer, Irish playwright Edna Walsh, structure the scene like a piece of theater; no cutaways, no camera movement, hanging on one set up for what seems like ages. The effect is mesmerizing. Sands sees the hunger strike as the only pathway to political status. The priest brings up the fact that Sands won’t be around to experience the result. It is in this scene that the film touches on the ethos of political martyrdom, as Sands is willing to lay down his life for the cause. But his desperation is unavoidable, as his last act of protest is to use his only resource, his body, as a weapon.
The scenes of the hunger strike are absolutely gut-wrenching. I’ve seen actors lose significant amounts of weight for roles before (Christian Bale in The Machinist is easily the most graphic) but Michael Fassbender pushes himself to the limit and beyond. I’ve read that he went from 170 to 132 pounds, but he is little more than a walking skeleton. We see boils and postules break out on his skin as bones begin to protrude. Any effort to move on his own becomes an exercise in futility. Food is continually lain at his bed side, but his resolve is unshakable. We move dreadfully through scene after scene of brutal detail, waiting for the inevitable moment of Sands’ death. When it arrives, it is as much a relief as it is catharsis.
I was confused when the lights came up. I knew I had watched a haunting, memorable film, but I still don’t think the full scope of its brilliance has revealed itself to me yet. I’m still trying to figure out what it ultimately wants to communicate, but I take comfort in knowing that there isn’t one clear message that it is trying to express. Like a true work of art, there are many things that can be taken from it.
This is a ridiculously powerful and ambitious film, the type that wants to challenge you more so than entertain you. The type that stays with you for days on end. The type that makes you rethink your own value system and beliefs. The type that asks tough questions and doesn’t provide easy answers. To me, that is what film is all about, and it makes me feel good that there are still movies out there that open up your mind and truly show you what is possible with the medium. Take the dare.