REVIEW: Hunger [2008]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 96 minutes | Release Date: October 31st, 2008 (Ireland)
Studio: IFC Films
Director(s): Steve McQueen
Writer(s): Enda Walsh & Steve McQueen

“We only smoke the lamentations”

In 2008, a 39-year old Brit made his auspicious cinematic debut with the daring Hunger. Based on the events surrounding the 1981 Northern Ireland hunger strike within HM Prison Maze, newcomer Steve McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh push fearlessly into the dark and inspiring tale. Beginning with the “blanket” and “no wash” strikes, we watch Irish Republican Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) get incarcerated. Speaking out on his desire for political status—the IRA looks for better rights since their crimes, although serious, were committed with ‘cause’—his jailer writes down ‘non-cooperative prisoner’ in his ledger and waits. Even though Gillen stands tall and demands to be able to keep his clothing, we all know the maneuver is nothing more than a calculated decision to be part of the movement. He will strip down, take a blanket as his only clothing, and will abstain from showering just like the rest of the Republicans trapped in his cellblock.

During the course of the first act, it is Gillen and his cellmate Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) that we follow. We spy inside their box, painted with feces and blood as the remnants of their food sits piled in a corner to stink up the place. They partake in the daily exercise of pouring urine into the hallway through watertight funnels of chewed up scraps ramping the liquid underneath the door; they sit and sleep naked, blanket tied around their waists; and they brace themselves for the regular exercise of forced bathing, soldiers in riot gear entering their cell to drag them out thrashing. This is life behind bars for the IRA, the British government refusing to budge on the fact they are all murderers without remorse. Whether their acts were in the name of politics or not, they will suffer to the utmost because no matter how docile they appear, the bite back in revenge would never cease coming.

McQueen throws us into the filthy chaos without regard to our mindsets. He has reenacted the conditions and unabashedly films them in full glory. But as we watch smeared waste on walls or beaten, dragged, and mutilated prisoners, we also catch a glimpse of a guard’s cautious life on the outside. We are made aware of the parallel brutal life led by the incarcerators through Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham). Waking up to his wife and a hot breakfast, the dejected look of a tired man is etched in his mirror. His morning ritual is a mix of fear for what the day may bring and anticipation for the unknown possibilities of what he’ll find his hands capable of doing. The threat of death lingers too as he walks precariously from his house, head on a swivel. Roads are checked for strangers, the undercarriage of his vehicle inspected for bombs, and the ever so slight pause by his wife from the window as the key turns the ignition tells how common an assassination in broad daylight truly is.

So we trail Gillen and Campbell as they meet visitors, smuggling messages out and contraband in by using all orifices at their disposal, while also tailing Lohan’s stern movements of extreme force. They in turn steer us into the second act by introducing the man of the hour: Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Obviously a leader within the IRA and his prison, Sands is the one everyone else mimics. When the Brits decide to give in to the demands of non-prison clothing with argyle golf attire, it is the delayed outburst of malice from Bobby that the rest follow. He is the one for which the guards are most brutal; his face often bloodied and bruised when his parents come to visit. Never privy to what these men did to end up in jail, we soon discover it doesn’t matter. The story told is one about injustice, abuse of power, and the proliferation of war crimes inside a nation torn apart.

Hunger shows us the lengths some will go for freedom. Sparse on words, the film’s middle act finally sheds light on the purpose of the atrocities we’ve witnessed thus far. Through a record-breaking 17-minute static take with camera pointed at a table seated by two men, we become aware of the stakes. As Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) attempts to diffuse the environment’s stark vacuum of silence with humor, the quick back and forth with Fassbender’s Sands eventually progresses into the serious matter at hand. The offer of offensive clothing was the last straw and the time had come for the IRA to quiet their critics and make a final stand. Where a previous hunger strike failed due to men’s fear of dying, Sands was ready to go all the way. For freedom and a united Ireland, he would do anything. To him, giving up his life wasn’t simply the only thing he could do—it was the right thing to do. Moran’s pleas on the basis of sentiment or tries at calling it suicide or martyrdom never had a chance to change his mind.

It’s a brilliantly bold stroke to utilize the many extended shots of static frames holding the action. A methodically constructed sequence of a masked guard pouring bleach and sweeping away the urine filling the hallway might seem tedious in any other film, but here it is metaphorically beautiful. By the time we are in the final third of the story, watching Fassbender literally waste away before our eyes—his transformation a testament to his craft—a universal, cleansing calm has fallen over Maze. With 75 men ready to give their lives, the prison can do nothing but wait as the clanging and screaming stops. Almost completely devoid of language, the rapid descent for Sands is authentic as sores and blood takeover the screen. Held in extreme close-up, tightly cropped compositions showing nothing but an eye hardly able to open and a mouth absent of sound, we watch life expire. A gesture to inspire future generations to continue the fight, knowing their oppressors will shed little tears for a terrorist’s death, it’s all shown with equal measures of esoteric praise and physical disgust.

Hunger may have opened its star to fame and opportunity, but its real achievement was introducing the world to a new artistic voice of cinema with McQueen. He visually assaults us by depicting a very public war’s behind the scenes battlefield, an excruciatingly one-sided and vicious setting that even causes a British guard not be able to stop the tears brought on by what he is made to do. Unafraid to pan across a wet floor for too long, give us a harsh aesthetic to match the mood, or construct a character with a complicated three-dimensionality only to end him in senseless bloody violence, it is almost frightening to think he has only just begun.

[1] Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands and Liam Cunningham as Father Dominic Moran in HUNGER by Steve McQueen. Photo credit: © Blast! Films – Hunger Ltd. 2008 All Rights Reserved. An IFC Films release
[2] Brian Milligan as Davey Gillen and Liam McMahon as Gerry Campell in HUNGER directed by Steve McQueen. Photo credit: © Blast! Films – Hunger Ltd. 2008 All Rights Reserved. An IFC Films release
[3] Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands HUNGER by Steve McQueen. Photo credit: © Blast! Films – Hunger Ltd. 2008 All Rights Reserved. An IFC Films release

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