We live in an odd world where the Lars Von Triers and Gaspar Noes come under degrees of attack for the overt depictions of violence and anti-humanity portrayed in their pictures while Steve McQueen receives almost universal praise for offering imagery that’s no less brutal and discomforting. This isn’t, by the way, an attack on McQueen, or Hunger, his directorial debut and one of the best films of its decade that I only recently found opportunity to see; more an expression of quiet surprise and, yes, maybe even outrage at nebulous critical distinctions made between films featuring either brazen or unconcealed draconian acts of unfeeling barbarism. Make no mistake– bold, daunting, and impeccable in its artistry, Hunger deserves every ounce of praise it’s received since its release in 2008 and bears the honor of being the most difficult to watch film I’ve ever seen.
Hunger‘s events unfold during the hunger strike undertaken in 1981 by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Yet the film remains wholly unconcerned with politics throughout; speaking strictly to ideology it’s neither in league with Maggie Thatcher’s British government nor with the members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army to whom the Prime Minister plays host. The film largely remains within the confines of Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, only departing to briefly follow at two different stages a prison guard as he lives and dies outside of its walls (and also indulge a minor yet meaningful flashback); there are no outside moments in which McQueen rallies us behind the beliefs of either side.
Quickly it becomes clear that clashing schools of thought aren’t the point here. The sole motivation of McQueen’s film is to document and recreate atrocities while underscoring convictions, and to do so with an impressive sense of artful craftsmanship. Viewers who know where they fall in the conflict between the IRA and the British government won’t find themselves feeling biased; nor will those unfamiliar with both the period Hunger covers and the history leading up to it feel unequipped to process the film’s narrative. Purely, Hunger seeks to depict the various brutal treatments rained down upon the prisoners as well as immortalize on screen the lengths they collectively went to for the sake of their politics.
McQueen weaves his picture together with non-traditional methods of storytelling and plot structure. Throw any preconceptions about how filmmakers deploy both plot and narrative in their movies out the window; McQueen does away with them, choosing more unconventional means of meting out both instead. I’d argue that it makes a degree of sense to tell a story about an extreme figure through extreme methods, too, though McQueen’s not breaking any conventions of filmmaking here, not really. In actuality he’s celebrating them and highlighting what good, clean cinematography and staging can do for a frame and for a story. Put more articulately McQueen insists on keeping things grounded, and his stripped-down directing style results in some absolutely stunning images of men living in the most appalling of conditions. He eschews tricks– in fact, the wackiest he ever gets with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s camera is precisely in the film’s climax, capturing the final moments of Bobby Sands’ suffering before he pays the ultimate price for his beliefs and expires.
I know I said that you didn’t need to know the history of the period to understand it, but even a passing knowledge of Sands’ hunger strike should include an awareness of his final fate. Besides, McQueen and Michael Fassbender both make it clear where Sands is going halfway through Hunger in the film’s signature sequence– a seventeen minute unwavering shot capturing a candid debate between Sands and Liam Cunningham’s dogged priest, intent on turning Sands away from death’s door. In this scene McQueen and Fassbender emerge as two rising stars and the film’s main attractions– McQueen for his daring in carrying out such a dauntingly minimalist sequence*, and Fassbender for so unflinchingly portraying Sands that he ceases to be an actor and figuratively sinks into his performance. As the great Ian McKellen once said, “become the man”. Fassbender does precisely that. He ceases to be Michael Fassbender and becomes another person entirely, emotionally and also, in gut-wrenching detail, physically. The results of his efforts are spellbinding in their harshness.
So too are McQueen’s efforts equally captivating in their hideousness. The prisoners of HM Prison Maze live in squalor; squalor of their own choosing, for certain, but squalor nonetheless. I think what’s more damning is that they’re largely allowed to remain in the conditions they create for themselves by a government unwilling to negotiate or be seen as capitulating— as much as the film never directly confronts politics they inevitably seep into its DNA anyways. As the men live out their days in cells they decorate with their own excrement and accessorize with piles of rotting, putrescent food, McQueen’s keen eye finds strikingly beautiful shapes, designs, and images streaked across the cell walls; I don’t know that his unique, artistic perspective of his world make the sight prisoners emptying their bowels in their hands or lying asleep as maggots curiously writhe across their chests any less difficult to digest. But then, I’d argue that that’s not McQueen’s task in the first place. Find beauty in the grotesque, but don’t downplay its effects.
Hunger‘s legacy lies in announcing McQueen and Fassbender as two talents at the very height of their respective fields. In other words, it’s an impressive feat for the former, being his directorial debut, and a mark of continued progression for the latter, who has shown his quality in role after role after role ever since (he’s appearing in McQueen’s next film, Shame, in less than two weeks). But the film also stands on its own merits as an unassailable, strong depiction of what people will endure for their convictions and beliefs. Dissent one might have with IRA doctrine should never even surface; this isn’t about Sands’ ideals but about how he’s willing to offer his life in support of them. And while the film proposes queries about the morality of his actions, Hunger‘s ultimate question nevertheless remains: When it’s your values at stake, would you be able to do the same?
*Such technical shots are incredibly difficult to execute– just ask Alfonso Cuarón. Reportedly Cunningham also moved in with Fassbender and the two of them practiced the scene endlessly to get it down perfectly. Talk about conviction.