Doodad Kind of Town

Quick Take: "Hunger"
May 10, 2009, 11:33 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” is as memorable for what it doesn’t tell us as for what it shows us in graphic detail.

Set in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in 1981, “Hunger” depicts events that lead up to the fatal hunger strike led by Irish Republican leader Bobby Sands, as well as the ravages of that strike on Sands himself. Given the subject matter, you may think you know what you’re in for, but writer-director Steve McQueen provides little context for the events in the prison and no easy guideposts to which characters, if any, are meant to be the villains. We never learn the specific crimes for which the striking IRA members have been imprisoned, nor do they talk about their cause. And apart from a pair of strategically placed audio clips from Margaret Thatcher’s speeches, the opposing view isn’t articulated either.

What we get instead – at least in the film’s first half – are a series of potent and sometimes disturbing images depicting daily life in the prison. And very, very little dialogue. These scenes are difficult to watch, at best. The IRA prisoners wear no clothes, only blankets tied around their waists; they’re unkempt and filthy and at least one prisoner regularly smears the walls of his cell with his own feces. (This was by design, a “blanket and no wash” protest against the British government’s refusal to grant them political prisoner status.) There are bursts of violence and brutality between the guards and prisoners, interspersed with lingering, leisurely shots (a guard having a solitary smoke outside in the snow, another guard mopping up spilled urine in a long corridor) that bring the film to temporary standstills. And there are images that leave us in doubt as to the guards’ true feelings about the prisoners they watch over and frequently abuse. One shot in particular is framed so that we see events on both sides of a wall; on one side, policemen savagely beat naked prisoners, on the other, a lone policeman is hiding and sobbing. No comment or explanation is given for this scene, or any of the others. McQueen is an observer rather than a polemicist, and he trusts the audience to draw their own conclusions.

Precisely at the mid-point of “Hunger,” this progression of images is broken by a 22-minute, single-shot, dialogue-heavy scene between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a Belfast priest (Liam Cunningham) in which the plans for a hunger strike are presented and debated. The scene couldn’t be simpler – two men seated at a small table, talking – but it builds almost imperceptibly from amiable banter to impassioned argument. By the end of this scene, which initially felt like a welcome oasis of humanity and friendship in an unremittingly grim scenario, the feeling of portent and dread is palpable. You know that something terrible is about to happen.

And it does. The final half of “Hunger” shows, in brutal and nearly unwatchable detail, exactly what toll the hunger strike takes on Sands. And, as in the film’s first section, there is almost no dialogue. I can only guess at what Fassbender put himself through in order to realistically depict the frail and skeletal Sands in his final days. If you learn nothing else from these scenes, you will learn unmistakably how horrible it is to starve to death. And even if you know little to nothing else about Sands, you will be in awe of his determination to die for his cause.

It’s almost trite to describe a film like “Hunger” as ‘powerful” or “disturbing,” or to note that its images stay with you long after you leave the theatre, yet all those things are indisputably true. To my mind, however, what McQueen finally achieves by eschewing political rhetoric and allowing these images of suffering to speak for themselves is to reaffirm the humanity of everyone involved. That he does so without explicity telling us how or what to feel seems like a minor miracle.


2 Comments so far
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A fine piece, Pat. What do you think of the controversy about Fassbender’s being asked to actually starve himself to play the role?

Comment by Rick Olson

Rick -I read a couple of interviews with Fassbender only after writing my review, so I haven’t been aware of controversy. I assume people are critical of McQueen for asking him to lose the weight, but given that this is McQueen’s first film – and that the result is so powerful and moving without seeming in any way gratuitous or exploitive – I think I’d hold my criticism. If it turns out that he continues to ask actors to make extraordinary, potentially dangerous sacrifices to play roles in his films, then I’d have an issue. But this seems a special case.Anytime actors change their appearance so drastically in order to properly play a role, I’m torn between admiring their dedication and wondering if the sacrifice was really worth it in the end.Fassbender’s starvation regimen does seems extreme to me and I wonder what the long-term detrimental effects might be, but he’s not the first actor to do something like that. I never actually saw “The Machinist,” but I know Christian Bale put himself through something very similar for that role.

Comment by Pat

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