British film director Steve McQueen’s 2008 debut film, Hunger, is notable for many reasons: It is a great film, a great debut film, uses an innovative narrative structure, uses interesting cinematography in concert with its soundtrack, makes the best use of ambient sound to have the best non-musical soundtrack I’ve heard in a long time (if not ever), is the work of a black artist that is not obsessed with black only topics, and shows a maturity and grace that goes beyond even the first films of directors like David Gordon Green, in George Washington, and Terrence Malick, in Badlands. The film follows the futile 1981 hunger strike of Irish political prisoners in a Northern Island jail — the Maze Prison — and focuses on mainly the determination and death of Bobby Sands, the ringleader of the protest, and first to die, after 66 days. While the film is clearly on Sands’ side, the strike was ultimately futile since, although then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher eventually conceded some points, Ireland remains a bitterly divided island to this day, nine other men also committed suicide via starving themselves, and hatred between the Northern Protestants and Southern Catholics continues unabated, with lulls in the violence, here and there. But, perhaps the most notable thing about the film is that it is a great work of art that is a political work of art, and achieves this greatness solely on the basis of its art: How it tells its tale, not the stances it takes on the issues. The art comes first and foremost above the politics.
The film opens with the banging of plates in protest at a jail, then switches to silence for the opening credits. It then follows the early morning rituals of a prison guard (Stuart Graham), which includes listening to local news, then checking under his car for a bomb. We then see a series of prison rituals from the guards’ points of view, before we switch over to see the incarceration of prisoners, who are unkempt, wipe their feces all over their cells, and refuse to bathe or shave. The interesting thing is that these prisoners have internalized the brutalization they’ve received at the hands of the British by making their own suffering and privation all the worse by their belligerence and masochism. This is a condition almost inverse to the Stockholm Syndrome. For the first third of the 96 minute long film we get little dialogue, save for some perfunctory exchanges between prisoners and between guards. We see brutality, as the Irish prisoners are forced to bathe and run a gauntlet of British guards, in riot gear, as they are beaten by batons that are being banged against plastic shields, but McQueen does a wise thing, and briefly shows a split screen shot of one of the guards, who has snuck away from the gauntlet, and is weeping in a dark private room. Whether this is for the plight of the prisoners, his own hell at being forced to degrade himself, or any other reason, is not as important as the show of emotion. We then see the prison guard we saw at the start of the film, at a nursing home, talking to his catatonic mother, as an IRA assassin shoots him in the head and takes off.
Then comes a solitary scene that lasts, perhaps, twenty to twenty-five minutes, and is held in a static shot for all but the last three to five minutes. It is a shot of a priest (Liam Cunningham) and prisoner, in silhouette, engaged in dialectic that starts off with common bullshit and bravado (the priest swearing up a storm), then turns to the brute beliefs each owns about the British-Irish conflict, the morality of suicide, and the prisoner’s leading of an impending hunger strike, then the prisoner’s telling of an anecdote of youthful violence he perpetrated — how he euthanized a young foal with a broken leg when none of his friends would do it. The magnificent centerpiece of Hunger ends with neither side convincing the other, and the prisoner, whom we now learn is Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), and recognize as just another face in the crowd, from earlier in the film, resigned to his plight. Yet, just as in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre, the dialogue, especially Sands’ closing anecdote, evokes images in the minds of viewers upon recall. We then fade to a long, extended shot of a prison janitor sweeping away the piss and feces of the prisoners that’s flowed out into a prison hallway, then see extended scenes of Sands in the throes of dying: Scenes of bed sores, blood in toilet bowls, delusions, hearing loss, and then a final vision, near death, of a young Sands running in the woods. These, and other scenes, go on for the rest of the film, and end at his death, in which McQueen brilliantly pays homage to an unlikely film source, Stanley Kubrick’s magisterial 2001: A Space Odyssey. He does so in shots of an emaciated Sands, in bed, barely being able to turn his head to see something that the viewer is never shown, all the while his slow, heavy breathing dominates the soundtrack — a direct link to the scenes in the grand bedroom that a transfigured Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) lays in, before his rebirth as the Starchild. The film ends on Sands’ death, and with some clarifying information imparted, yet this film sticks with the viewer long after. Images reappear, and sounds, even more strongly stick, and I know this so, as I am writing this review with three days’ passage between the viewing and reviewing of it.
The film treats Sands less as a Christ-like martyr or an Osama-like terrorist, and more as an old time Robert Ripley curio — a believe it or not. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, is never seen, merely heard, as almost a Dickensian wraith of malignance and idiocy, and these dual treatments — the brutalizer as bodiless and the brutalized as slowly debodied, are a great example of the subtle poesy the film employs. Technically, the film is interesting in how it juxtaposes image with sound, and sometimes allows sound to be the dominant sense. From early scenes of a guard, outside in winter, smoking a cigarette, and hearing exhalation, to the rancor in multiple scenes of violence, McQueen uses synaesthesia better than just about any other film director around. Also, he makes grand use of the long take, clearly influenced by the works of Theo Angelopoulos and Bela Tarr. In the subgenre of “prison film,” Hunger blows away other lauded films, from Cool Hand Luke to Midnight Express, which are conventional melodramas, in comparison. But, in achieving his realism sans much dialogue, McQueen also shows that he is, in a sense, the anti-Cassavetes, for where Cassavetes achieved such realism with dialogue, in great films like Faces and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, by letting characters speak as in real life, McQueen allows characters to react and brood, as in real life. In Cassavetes films, the self is defined by interactions with other selves. In McQueen’s film, self is delineated by interaction with oneself.
The screenplay, written by McQueen and Enda Walsh, has many good moments, such as the clean clothes the Brits force the Irish to wear to receive visitors (Otherwise they are naked, in protest of wearing criminals’ clothes), a masturbation scene wherein one prisoner, in a cell smeared with feces, somehow feels embarrassed to waken his cellmate with the sounds of his self-pleasure, the scene of how the Brits need to powerwash the excremented cells, only to have the prisoners returned to the cells and break their cots and other furniture in protest — again inflicting almost as much brutality on themselves as the Brits do. And these scenes show exactly why the Brits are so intransigent, since the Irish are so willing to live down to their stereotypes of them. Another technique that McQueen uses over and again is showing brief snippets of a scene, then cutting away, to let the viewer imagine how the rest will play out; but the key is that he never cuts too early, so that the viewer is bewildered as to what is going on. David Holmes’ soundtrack is one of the best ever recorded, in its use of ambient sound. The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt is precise and emphasizes emotional and visceral reactions in the characters to impart the same to the viewer.
All of these things contribute to the film’s greatness, and the film’s own lack of pretension only amplifies this fact, in an odd recapitulation of how the use of sound amplifies emotion throughout the film. It’s little wonder that Hunger won the Camera D’Or, the prize for best first feature film, at the Cannes Film Festival, the year of its release, it deserved to. What is odd is some critics comparing the film to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ignominious disaster, Salo, simply because feces plays a role in both films. Nonetheless, Hunger is, unlike Pasolini’s film, a great work of art, and here’s hoping that McQueen does not go the way of David Gordon Green, in selling out to the Lowest Common Denominator of the masses. Pretty please.