Hunger is the film that introduced British director Steve McQueen to audiences all around the world. Gruesome and disturbing, but with the sound intention of informing us of a tragic part of Irish history through its representation of beaten, battered, and broken, but not lost, men willing to die for their honor. This film is based on events of one man's life, but McQueen doesn't resort to using one man to get his point across, instead many men to create a more worldly picture. Art doesn't get much more stirring than this.
The film is set in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland where Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners fight to regain their political status. Most of us, including myself, don't know any of the background to what the time period this film is depicting, but that doesn't take away any of its power. New prisoner Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) is our eyes and ears for the first portion of the film. He comes in a scared man trying to support his cause. In a brutal, dignity destroying scene, Davey refuses to wear prison attire, so the guards, without saying a word or making a movement, force him to take off his clothes and give him nothing but a blanket. From that point on we see the desperation and humiliation that quickly destroys these men. The ways the prisoners fight to not follow the rules of the British include refusing to wash, fighting the guards every chance they get, flooding the floors in urine, and coloring their cell walls with their feces. These sickening acts are the desperate attempts by broken men to regain the slimmest amount of human decency.
Through prison officer Raymond Lohan we see just how effective the prisoner's protests are. The film opens with us seeing Lohan's daily routine of checking for bombs under his car and isolating himself from his colleagues who somehow are able to ignore the horrors going on. Stuart Graham plays Lohan with bare minimum dialogue, where his emotionally destroyed facially expressions tell the story of his doomed character. Another time where the effects of the prisoners protests and causes are shown their affect is a scene where riot officers come to bring order. A young riot officer (Ben Peel) is obviously bothered by the brutality he is forced to be involved in, his fear takes over and his response to his feelings destroys him.
The first part of the film is powered by McQueen's patient, need-to-inform build-up to his real intentions. His desire to authentically, yet dramatized, portrayal of a major time in Irish history makes his film's pace and desires hard to figure out. But with his personal sympathy and passion for the times he is representing, McQueen does something special.
After the disturbing introduction of real-life IRA volunteer Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) - where we see the endless desire to make a difference that defined the real man - the film moves at a steadier pace and with better flow. The 20 minute meeting between Sands and his priest, Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), just might be the most powerful scene of the film. It starts with the simple catching up between two friends with fond memories and talks of the "good times," but then shifts when Sands finally reveals the true purpose of the meeting. He tells the priest of his intentions to start another, "better organized," hunger strike. The priest is appalled at Sands' easy acceptance of the fact that lives will be lost in order for the strike to succeed. Like all priests, he believes that talk is the better option that won't require lost lives. But Sands' mind is made up, only drastic action will make any difference. After the meeting the rest of the film shows us in graphic detail the deterioration of Sands' body and mind through during his hunger strike.
Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) takes his role as real-life revolutionary, Bobby Sands, and gives us a remarkable performance that shows us this man with all of his pain and endless desire to make a difference. Like the entire film, his performance has minimal dialogue, McQueen forces us to watch this man's pain because it is something we need to see. Fassbender and McQueen work best when working together, for the last twenty or so minutes of the film they work together to cap off a film that has left lingering thoughts and emotions with me.
An artist turned art-house director, Steve McQueen's debut film Hunger is a disturbing portrait of humiliation and emotional destruction with hints of light shining through. Much of the film consists of lengthy, continuous shots that force us to take in what we are seeing - a ten minute shot of a guard mopping the urine-flooded floors. It is a beautiful sight to see a new director immediately use his career to acknowledge important subjects and themes. McQueen is a director who is going to make films with purposes. His film is depressing to watch, and not for the feeble hearted, but impossible not to respect, applaud, and in my case, admire.
McQueen accomplishes so much with Hunger, I pray that he hasn't reached the peak of his career with his first film. It will be a real achievement if he is able to surpass this film with his next film, Shame (2011), - which is released December 2 in the United States. A friend who viewed Shame at the Toronto International Film Festival told me that it is better and that it will "floor me." I find it hard to believe that something at this level could be make two times in a row, but McQueen is a director whose limit is even higher than just the sky..