A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank:  #5

HUNGER  jjjj

2009, no MPAA rating, 96 mins.


Bobby Sands: Michael Fassbender / Father Moran: Liam Cunningham / Raymond: Stuart Graham / Davey: Brian Milligan / Gerry: Liam McMahon

Directed by Steve McQueen / Written by Enda Walsh and McQueen.

HUNGER is one of the most unflinchingly brutal and devastatingly haunting prison films...and one of the most grotesquely atmospheric.  On simple notes, it tells the real life tale of Irish Republican Army Activist Bobby Sands who, in 1981, engaged in an arduous and nightmarish ordeal of going on a hunger strike to serve as a political martyr for his comrades.  His story fuelled the interest of the worldwide media (he even managed to get elected as a Member of Parliament during the strike) and, after several agonizing weeks, the strike led to the deaths of ten prisoners at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, along with Sands’ demise as well.   

Sad, indeed.    

It would be wrong, however, to label HUNGER as a history or staunchly political message film.  Far from it.  In actuality, HUNGER's primary motivation is to create an unrelenting and remarkable tactile sense of dread and horror to the life of the prisoners at Maze Prison.  Watching – make that, enduring – HUNGER allowed me to draw some parallels of it to, oddly enough, John Hillcoat’s intoxicating 2006 western, THE PROPOSITION, which was one of the most primal and atmospheric westerns I have experienced.  Hillcoat’s film was a blood-drenched poem to the stark and unforgiving landscape of the morally decayed and desolate western iconography: it transported you to another time and place as efficiently as, say, STAR WARS did – to the gritty and despotic haze of the Australian outback.   THE PROPOSITION had such a corporeal strength; it was a film that made you you feel like you could reach out to the screen and touch and smell it. 

HUNGER elicits many of the same reactions, albeit with a far more gloomy and merciless tenacity.  Working with a script he co-wrote with Irish playwright Dena Wright, first time director Steve McQueen (who definitely should have considered a career name change in order to avoid being confused with the diseased Hollywood acting legend) creates a pulse-pounding and guileless vision of the barbaric and savage experiences of prisoners like Sands.  McQueen, much like Julian Schnabel, was a prize-winning artist before making his incredible debut here and the British-born, Amsterdam-residing artist’s intent here was to create film going experience that has the power and minimalist veracity of the best of silent cinema.  After watching the film it’s shocking to see how little dialogue there is – aside from one key scene – but the point here is clear: McQueen wants to submerge and nauseate viewers in the film’s treacherous  cruelty and startling sense of immediacy.  HUNGER is a rare film in that it has images that are, for all intents and purposes, gorgeously framed and shot, but the content of those images are not for the faint of heart. 

The film clearly establishes the fierce battle between the IRA and the British state, which unavoidably led to the Maze hunger strike that cost nearly a dozen lives.  The film dramatizes the six week's worth of events prior to Sands’ demise as well as plunging viewers head on into his astonishingly dreadful final weeks, where he withered away to a near skeleton form.  Sands (played in a performance of miraculous perseverance and self-sacrifice by Michael Fassbender) and his partners hoped to have IRA inmates recognized as political prisoners entitled to rights and rules under wartime events.  The British Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher (very appropriately heard only in voice over form here), cemented her iron-willed reputation by not relenting to their demands.  There are some obvious comparisons that will be made here to our current political fiasco that is Gitmo, but the analogies are only fleeting and coincidental.  HUNGER does not engage in a dissertation as to the nature of terrorism and what rights, if any, the members of the IRA deserved.  Yes, Thatcher (at two specific times in the film) labels these men as criminals, not as political war prisoners whereas the IRA, on the other hand, sees themselves as political to the core.  Nonetheless, the ultimate theme here is not who is right or wrong but rather how the prison state erodes human dignity and respect of life in general.  

What’s really fascinating here is McQueen’s intriguing ability to make interesting segues in terms of focus and mood.  The opening scenes don’t focus on the prisoners at all, but rather from the curious point of view of one of the prison guards (played with a sense of heart-rending melancholy and pent up regret by Stuart Graham) whom is initially shown during the most leisurely moments of his daily life.  He wakes up, cleans himself up, dresses, shares a morning breakfast with his wife, etc. - these opening scenes (which all are patiently observed for their normalcy) show this man at his most mundane…that is until he lives the cozy confines of his house and checks under his car for bombs before he heads to work…then you know there is more to this man and his life.  McQueen then strategically juxtaposes images of him commiserating with work colleagues, having cigarette breaks, and eating lunch with dreadful images of him washing his bruised and bloodied knuckles.  This guard, albeit at first having the façade of a hard-working family man, has an undercurrent of darkness and violence to him, something that Graham hints at in his performance without making the character a one-note, villainess creation.  This prison job is emotionally suffocating the man.  Deep down, he loathes it. 

The film then changes its focus to two other prisoners (played with a disturbing physicality by Brian Milligan and Liam McMahon) who participate in the IRA led no-clothes, no-bathing strike, which occurred before the more notable hunger strike.   It is here when McQueen captures all of the grimy, dirty, and distressingly unhygienic confines of the prisoners’ cells and experiences.  He takes an almost Kubrickian fascination with the camera’s lingering focus on the most minute of details, often holding on images longer than most directors would: We see piles of rotting, maggot infested food; walls that are covered so much in human excrement that you can barely see the their original white color; the sounds of prisoners wheezing and breathing; images of them being given bloody and messy haircuts against their wills, accompanied by or often preceded by savage beatings; and – in one amazing shot – we see all of the inmates funnel their urine out of their cells underneath the cell doors (which is also shown in one careful, unbroken shot of a guard cleaning and disinfecting the floor for what appears to be an eternity).  McQueen does not pull viewers away from such excesses (he keeps the camera fixated for unbearable lengths at times), but he wants to command a Svengali-like fixation and interest in viewers.  

The film then finally closes in on the hunger strike story of Sands itself, during which he grows to understand that the previous clothes and bath strikes were not working and decides to enact his final, suicidal plan for a hunger strike.  He reveals this in one of the most effectively orchestrated dialogue scenes in a long time by laying out his case to a very sharp-witted, acerbic, and foul mouthed priest named Moran (Liam Cunningham, in a marvelous and quietly powerful performance).  The scene itself shows the verbal cat and mouse game that both parties engage in: The priest desperately tries to use logic to convince Sands of the futility of his actions, which will lead to his death; Sands, on the other hand, remains staunchly vigilant, continually emphasizing the point that it’s a very necessary means to an end.  Both are as direct, forthright, and uncompromising with their respective views.  What McQueen does here is kind of ingenious, if not a bit audacious: he holds the camera on the two in a static medium shot, unbroken for nearly twenty minutes, which is only later broken by another static close-up of Sands’ world weary face for several minutes more as he engages in one of the film’s most moving monologues.  The initial shot – which is arguably the longest-unbroken shot in movie history – is calculatingly done this way to show how two men will not relent to the other.  The shot is democratic because it gives each character an equal dramatic footing in the exchange.  It’s nothing short of mesmerizing seeing the men argue the pros and cons of Sands intentions and motivations. 

The final scenes are the heart-wrenchingly bleak, as we bare witness to Sands physically and mentally eroding away into a slow, painful death.  At his worst we see him with bleeding sores all over his body, having acute kidney failure, low blood pressure, stomach ulcers, and, near the end, with an inability to stand by himself, communicate to others, let alone be communicated to.  Michael Fassbender deserves the “Christian Bale Lifetime Achievement Award” here for recklessly endangering himself for the sake of art.  Much like Bale did with his twisted transformation in THE MACHINIST, Fassbender went on a medically monitored diet to shed himself down from a very healthy 180 pounds to a gaunt and shriveled up 130 pounds (yet, I must ask: what doctor in the world would have agreed to supervising this?).  Yet make no mistake about it, Fassbender gives one of the great movie performances, allowing for his character's emotional and physical deterioration stand out amidst all of the rest of the film’s suffering.  He also completely sells Sands’ undying convictions of salvation through death, even when it appears to be - to normal, untainted eyes - suicide. 

I will never forget this film.  Ever.  HUNGER unbelievably even manages to transcend the very notion of making its events feel real and tangible to the audience.  Again, the film is not about who’s morally correct and who’s irreproachable evil-minded.  HUNGER is a no-holds barred film that’s about man’s inhumanity to man.  It emerges as a masterpiece of editorial ingenuity and of stirring and authoritative imagery.  McQueen manages to dissect all of the witless and banal clichés of so many other forgettable prison films and instead makes something much more vigorously original and vital.  He gives the proceedings a painterly eye for detail and mood while simultaneously engaging my wince/gag reflex.  I fidgeted considerably through many moments in the film and even felt the need to turn my eyes away from the screen on many occasion.  

Even if HUNGER will indefinitely linger with me, it still will not be a film that I wholeheartedly wish to see again.  Like SCHINDLER’S LIST, for instance, its unwavering barbarism and gut wrenching imagery is perhaps too much to bare for repeated viewings.  What we are left with is a one of the most impressive debut films in years, and one of harrowing and stark visceral impact: we see the inhuman and – in my opinion – needless extremes that people are willing to subjugate themselves through in hopes of acting as a socio-political rallying cry.   I use the term “needless” to describe the efforts of Sands because, in the long run, his hunger strike and unfortunate and deeply tragic death served to accomplish very little in the short term.  Ireland is still divided, but at peace, something that Sands himself never allowed himself the privilege of seeing.  To reiterate, HUNGER does not take political sides, nor does it engage in sanctimonious preaching: It ultimately shows how frail basic human human dignity is and how much people are willing to destroy it for their causes.

Sad, indeed.

  H O M E