Sunday, April 12, 2009
A Film of Few Words: Hunger
Margaret Thatcher isn’t a flesh-and-blood character in Hunger, and yet she delivers what is perhaps the film’s most significant piece of dialogue. Not that she has much competition. Save for a 20-minute stretch that is nothing but words, words, words, this 96-minute film is nearly void of expository conversation. That’s why Thatcher’s words, crackling into the drama over a radio, make such a profound impact. In the debut feature of director Steve McQueen (no relation to the King of Cool), nothing is careless. Thus, comments from the prime minister that would be mere historical context in another film, here make for biting commentary. Says Thatcher: “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence.” In Hunger, the line between political and criminal action is nearly indecipherable.
That seems to be the point. Hunger is, by the end, the story of IRA activist Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike, which ended with his death after 66 days of starvation. But more than that, Hunger is a documentation of Maze prison in Belfast in the days leading up to and through Sands’ fatal protest. In fact, Sands doesn’t enter the film until after the 30-minute mark. Until then, McQueen reveals Maze to be a place of routine and wretchedness. Day after day, the IRA prisoners smear the walls of their cells with feces. Day after day, the prisoners flood the corridor outside their cells with urine. Day after day, a Maze worker comes through the corridor and sweeps the urine back into the inmates’ cells. And on any given day, the prisoners are removed from their cells to be beaten and otherwise debased. This, Hunger suggests, is the cost of both fighting the system and trying to protect it. Political protest leads to criminal action, which leads to political imprisonment, which leads to criminal inhumanity – from guards and inmates alike.
It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the prisoners, huddled naked under blankets next to piles of maggot-infested food, especially given that McQueen makes no attempt to share the crimes that landed these men in Maze, as if those actions are irrelevant. No crime could be worth this, the film seems to say. And, at the same time, perhaps no political cause could be worth this either. Hunger is yet another film illustrating that war, as seen through the battlefield of Maze, brings out the worst in mankind. While McQueen documents with an unflinching gaze every brutality endured by the prisoners, he doesn’t omit the effect that it has on their jailors. The first character we meet is a guard played by Stuart Graham who regularly soaks his right hand, bloodied and swollen from administering beatings, in a sink full of water, and who begins each day by lying on the ground to check the underside of his car for bombs. This guard lives a better life than that of a Maze inmate, to be sure, but Graham’s character is a prisoner, too, of Thatcher’s hard-line policies that require him to be an enforcer and put him in the IRA’s line of fire.
If you haven’t guessed it by now, Hunger isn’t for the squeamish. I spent what felt like a third of the picture involuntarily lurching in my seat, as if trying to avoid the film’s ghastly imagery, to no avail. Hunger gives us no place to run. Like The Passion Of The Christ, this film stares directly into every bloody wound, and yet McQueen doesn’t romanticize the pain endured by his film’s martyr(s) the way that Mel Gibson kneels in awe for his messiah. Whereas The Passion is moved along by John Debney’s mournfully reverent score, Hunger is without an emotive soundtrack and its patient camera captures the suffering clinically, almost dispassionately, as if made by a lifetime slaughterhouse worker who has grown accustomed to the grotesqueries of his surroundings. These images need no embellishment, and McQueen, already a successful visual artist before moving to feature filmmaking, needs no cinematic crutches. Hunger isn’t exploitive; it’s procedural. And, fittingly enough, Hunger is arguably the most claustrophobically evocative film since The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, the latest effort by painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel.
Interestingly, Hunger’s only show-stopping bit of standard theatrical fare is also its intermission, a welcome respite from the gauntlet of suffering that is the film’s first and third acts. Everything we know about Sands the man is stuffed into a 20-minute scene in which the still virile and charismatic Maze militant sits across a table from a priest and outlines his upcoming hunger strike. Sands is played by Michael Fassbender, the priest by Liam Cunningham, and the majority of their scene is captured in one unbroken take that’s as effective as it is noteworthy. In capturing both characters from the side in one shot, McQueen levels the playing field, lending as much credence to the protests of the priest as to the philosophizing of Sands. Likewise, McQueen keeps us at arm’s length, thwarting our desire to look Sands directly in the eyes, to be moved or at least convinced by his fervor. As a result, the scene provides a true battle of words and ideas between two men flinging lightning bolts at one another with Godlike certainty. Before the end of this swift second act, McQueen caves to convention, giving us a close-up of Sands’ face from the priest’s point of view, but not before treating us to some of the liveliest tête-à-tête one can ever hope to find at the movies – a scene that feels suitable for the stage but designed for cinema, possessing an emotional heft that reminds of the classic Marlon Brando-Rod Steiger exchange in On The Waterfront.
If everything mentioned above suggests that Hunger is an exemplar of greatness, the film’s downfall is its slightness. Hunger is an anti-epic, insular and thin. If the benefit of this approach is refinement, the detriment is rendering McQueen’s film the cinematic equivalent of mezze – whetting the appetite as often as satisfying it. This is a minor sin, as sins go, especially in an era when so many filmmakers force-feed the audience with more than we need. Still, there’s a disappointing irony to the way McQueen ogles Fassbender’s unsettlingly emaciated frame over the final act: Just like Sands was starved for nourishment near the end, so is Hunger. In the beginning, McQueen’s film speaks softly and wields an enormous stick, eschewing platitudes in favor of stark visceral realism. In the end it melts away all too quickly, as if it was never really there.