Hunger is an enigma; it is brutally violent which at times makes it hard to watch but it is so interesting and well shot that you cannot look away.
Steve McQueen’s Hunger is based on real events on the huge battle between the Irish Republican Army and the British Government which ultimately led to a hunger strike in 1981. Michael Fassbender’s performance is easily his best to date as one of the leads. This art-house film is an enigma; it is brutally violent which at times makes it hard to watch but it is so interesting and well shot that you cannot look away.
At first we follow a man who checks underneath his car before getting inside of it. This is to make sure that no one has placed an explosive on the vehicle. There is even deliberate focus on the key as he turns the ignition as to suggest an explosive is still a threat. Luckily for him, he is safe from any catastrophes today.
Within the first ten minutes of Hunger director Steve McQueen puts emphasis on this man’s bloody knuckles. Twice we see him nursing them in a water filled sink and once he zooms on him while he is outside having a smoke. At this point we are given no explanation as to how his happened. We still do not even know his name. In fact, hardly any spoken dialog has occurred yet.
Come to find out that this man’s name is Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) who works as an officer at the Maze Prison. This prison houses the Irish Republicans that are protesting against the British state. One of the things these individuals are protesting is no bathing, which for sanitary reasons in a prison you can see how this can be a problem. So when they pull prisoners out of their cells from time to time to bathe them, the officers are met with furious resistance. It then becomes apparent how Raymond’s knuckles get so bloody.
One of those prisoners is Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) who is serving a 12 year sentence. At first when you see the walls of his cell you think it is just dirty or rust that is forming but you soon realize that it is feces the line the walls. He is very determined to defend what he believes in. His believes, after all, are the most powerful thing he has.
The title of the film comes from when Bobby reveals his plans on starting a hunger strike. Instead of all 75 inmates starting at the same time and each person is going to start 2 weeks after the next. This makes it last the longest. He is willing to die from hunger to demonstrate the message they want to send out.
It’s the small details that the director chooses to show that makes Hunger so well done. During the close up shot of Raymond’s battered knuckles a tiny snow flake lands right on them and then quickly melts. McQueen is a true visual artist and after watching this film it would be hard to debate that.
Another great piece of filmmaking is the stationary camera that shows Bobby and a priest having a cigarette together. From when they first lit the cigarette until it’s fully smoked, the camera does not move for nearly 17 minutes. In fact, enough time passes where Bobby finishes another cigarette.
The long haunting hallway shots he used reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The slow pan of the camera over the floor until it reaches the end of the hallway adds to this. His eye for artistic detail seems to be right on par with the best. So it comes to little surprise that he won the Camera D’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. But what is most unbelievable is that this was his first feature film of his career.
Fassbender lost over 35 pounds to portray the role of Bobby Sands on his hunger strike. His role was physically demanding and at the same time incredibly violent. When he is not being beaten completely nude, he is bleeding from wounds from previous beatings. Near the end of the film his skeleton body loses all of its natural color.
Rather than telling the story of the protest hunger strike, Hunger shows it in a visually powerful way. There will be several times where you will cringe at what you see on the screen while simultaneously appreciating the unflinching approach to this visual masterpiece. The film is like a vivid nightmare that sticks with you; a nightmare that is filled with exquisite art.