A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, no MPAA rating, 96 mins.
2009, no MPAA rating, 96 mins.
Bobby Sands: Michael Fassbender / Father Moran: Liam Cunningham / Raymond:
Stuart Graham / Davey: Brian Milligan / Gerry: Liam McMahon
is one of the most unflinchingly brutal and devastatingly haunting prison
films...and one of the most grotesquely atmospheric.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.