Hunger is about the body, its waste and torments. Excrement smears the IRA inmates' walls in director Steve McQueen's debut film about the 1981 Irish hunger strike led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Piss is funneled under cellblock doors to flood the hall. Nightsticks rain down on naked flesh. Food is refused to the point of fatal emaciation.
But McQueen bristled when an audience member at a recent IFC Center Q& A called it violent. "Show me a summer blockbuster whose death toll and wasted bullets don't outnumber
Hunger's," he reasoned. But Hunger's unflinching portrayal of corporal punishment, self-inflicted or not, sears the retinas more than any comic book adaptation's could. It's a testament to McQueen that his debut film will likely force you to avert your eyes.
Such an aversion might make viewers complicit with the British government that McQueen renders through a grave, dismissive Margaret Thatcher voiceover. It's a fitting decision for the director who said the movie is "about the power of the mouth more than anything else. When nothing was going in, volumes were coming out," he explained. Thatcher's interjections are the only times Hunger refers to the ethnic and religious struggles behind the IRA impriso
nments and hunger strike.
Shying away from the political, conflict initially revolves around guards and prisoners in Her Majesty's Prison Maze, and brutally so. Inmates are pushed, dragged and clubbed down the block's narrow halls, dunked in ice-cold water and anally probed during contraband searches. It's in one of these sequences that we first meet Sands. Beaten to a pulp, lying naked and supine with his glazed eyes staring at the camera, the audience wonders what further debasement could possibly await him.
Physical abuse gives way to intellectual and spiritual debate in the film's crackling centerpiece. Sands summons a priest to announce his plans for the strike. Over twenty minutes (interrupted by only two cuts) the pair veers between the mundane ("Better than smoking the Bible, ay," the priest asks while Sands enjoys a rare tobacco cigarette instead of his usual substitute, a shredded page from the Book of Lamentations) and the profound. Father Moran points out the futility of the plan and the damage, including Sands' son, it will leave in its wake, but stubborn Irish resolve prevails. "I don't think I'll be seeing you again, Bobby," he concedes.
McQueen saves his most devastating work for the film's final third, which witnesses Bobby's prolonged disintegration. The director said he envisioned Hunger as a silent movie; this act is largely free of dialogue. Instead the viewer observes Bobby's oozing sores, protruding ribs and bloody bowel movements in blue-toned, almost clinical close-up. The intimate, sustained portrayal of Bobby's decline (he died after 66 days; ten fellow strikers followed) avoids fetishism only because of the profound context of dehumanization the films has established—witness a split screen shot of a lone guard sobbing as his peers partake in savage beatings for proof that degradation extends beyond the prisoners.
Hunger's bleak themes and solemn imagery, coupled with the director's video-artist background, distinguish it from standard cinematic fare. But McQueen corrected an audience member at a recent IFC Center Q&A who called it "a work of art." "I want everyone to look at this as a feature film," he said. Veering between lyrical beauty (flashbacks of a young Bobby running through a meadow punctuate his deathbed scenes) and stark decay, Hunger qualifies as both.