Steve McQueen's feature film debut, Hunger, is an uneven but viscerally forceful picture. Where it fails in comprehensiveness and even filmic movement—McQueen's vignettes almost all stand apart, disparately creating momentary displeasure and disgust, never quite gelling into a substantive narrative, or at least only belatedly finding one to pursue—it succeeds in sensational conviction befitting its subject matter. Not unlike Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, McQueen's film is fervent and nearly maniacal in its unblinking stare; unlike Gibson's film, McQueen's attempt to chronicle the sixty-six day hunger strike spearheaded by Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) is secular in its devotionally obsessive focus. Drawing a parallel between both the cruelty visited upon the defiant and disruptive prisoners of the Northern Ireland Maze Prison by the guards and Sands' self-inflicted choice to starve himself to Christ's passion on several occasions, McQueen and collaborator (and playwright) Enda Walsh seem to nevertheless yearn to unfurl their drama with a level of detachment.
That detachment, however, is occasionally made questionable, and McQueen's actual beliefs are ostensibly betrayed by his insistence of layering stylistic flourishes atop the occurrences his film essays. One repetitive touchstone is the usage of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher verbally condemning the Irish Republican Army members as violent terrorists unworthy of the political prisoner status for which they protested. McQueen creates significant sympathy for the Irish prisoners, demonstrating with an unalloyed minimalism, as they communicate through tiny wads of paper passed along through their mouths to one another during mass. However, McQueen and Walsh exhibit empathy for the guards as well; indeed, the film opens with an extended sequence during which the camera follows along a guard who is washing and soothing his scarred-over knuckles in water. In one scene of vicious brutality, one guard appears almost traumatized, weeping as he recognizes the levels of de-humanization to which he and his peers have descended.
While examining Hunger it is advantageous to consider the chiefest qualities of cinema; its immediate fluency, and proficiency when optimally used to convey information. For example, in many of the better unironic, under-appreciated “genre” films, it is almost always the acuity of the filmmaking that enhances the narratively prosaic. It is in these films where the visual craftsmanship and aesthetic stylishness benefits the films' unalloyed machinations. When appropriately meshed, visualization supersedes what is commonly called “plot.” From Taken to Point Break, and many other examples, it is the artful accession of élan that endows the familiar.
So it is with a slightly confounded mien that it is realized that McQueen's Hunger is almost arriving at the opposite spectrum of cinema—the “story” is at the service of his craftsmanship. McQueen is trained as a fine artist, and his debut film is delineated by ostentatiousness and precociousness. The entire ninety-six minute film plays out like an exercise in quaffing precious artfulness. With the proverbial tips of the hat to Robert Bresson (the meticulously detailed manner in which the prisoners communicate with one another cannot not remind of A Man Escaped) and Stanley Kubrick (the entire film accounts de-humanization—of prisoner and guard alike—and a sequence in which a group of jackbooted thugs stand in a long hallway cannot not bring images of Full Metal Jacket to most filmgoers who will actually watch Hunger), McQueen's confidence, at least bordering on arrogance, is doubtless.
Not that there is anything wrong with a stubborn, uncompromising artistic initiative—with Hunger, it is the imagery that stays, long after the final credits have unspooled, after all, but for its second and most impressive act. Nonetheless, McQueen's picture plays like numerous sketches aligned together for the purpose of making a film. Coherence is not an issue—Hunger is rigorously minimalistic and quite slowly paced, which contributes to the pervasive feeling of crushing, listless boredom that is as poisonous to the souls of the prisoners (and guards) as the ordeals to which they are subjected as a price of their disobedience. Ocular recording of the tellurian plays heavily into the visceral potency that is Hunger's most certain attribute. As a guard sedates himself with a quiet sojourn to the yard, smoking a cigarette in the wintry weather, snowflakes fall upon him. McQueen and director of photography Sean Bobbitt capture the subsequent moment on film with fine delicacy. The guard who had earlier soothed his beaten, battered and bloodied knuckles in water finds little snowflakes weep from the sky and landing on his scars and marks of self-inflection against the heads of many prisoners. McQueen's fine artist eye catches many more undisguised flourishes. Prisoners smear their own excrement upon the walls of their cells, and McQueen's camera seems particularly attuned to the spiral patterns one prisoner creates with feces-wall painting.
The best portion of the film, however, is a bravura, unbroken sequence in which McQueen's camera remains still and there are no interruptions of cutting. For over fifteen minutes, two men, Sands, and Father Moran (an extremely stirring and profound Liam Cunningham: his performance alone makes Hunger worth the investment) speak to one another in ostensible “real time,” volleying points to one another. The steadied duration of this puissant portion creates uneasy astriction and tautness, deftly providing an atmospheric contextual support for the final act of the film that details Sands' self-imposed bodily disintegration, wherein the film finally does become soporose in its hazily blurred perspective. When the camera finally does break the hypnotic spell, it is to emphasize Sands' words as he tells an allegorical story from his childhood about doing what was right and accepting the consequences with the peace, dignity and knowledge that he had the courage to do what was right. The conversation between Sands and Father Moran is utterly bewitching and fascinating, and an instance of actors correctly taking over a film and the director allowing them the freedom, space and time with which to tell a story.
It is, then, almost humorously appropriate to consider the inherent artifice of the entire riveting conversation. By all accounts, Sands and Father Moran never spoke to one another, whereas it is clear that such events as IRA members being beaten, refusing to wear certain prison uniforms and going on hunger strikes are part of recorded history. In Hunger's major and outstanding concession to filmic progress and peregrination, it actually extols the virtues of the cinematically schematic derived by storytelling strategies and considerations of scenario. Unlike The Class, which was made intentionally visually unappealing by its director, Hunger is a film with several toes dipped in the waters of vérité filmmaking and mise-en-scene construction but with other toes hanging on to almost wheezing exhalations of exhilaratingly intense abstract artistry. That the most dazzling set-piece of Hunger almost perversely proves the efficacy of what may be loosely defined as “make-believe” is deeply paradoxical.
In the film's foggy, more asomatously focused, denouement, Sands allows his body to waste away. McQueen follows the process with a serviceable melange of the dispassionate and the assertive, engendering a cumulative tableau of a man gradually drifting away. Misty flashbacks to his childhood, the personal history from which he told the emotional story to Father Moran, abut the film's apparent moroseness in its consideration of a young man's life concluding long before it should have. The correlation to Jesus Christ becomes less distancing than it was earlier in the film—a manufactured line of dialogue from Sands in which he says that Christ's disciples were merely jumping on a bandwagon after Christ laid it all on the line himself diminishes their own respectively harsh fates and credentials for martyrdom—as McQueen visualizes Sands' earthly demise. Long, uninterrupted takes with sepia-toned dissolves overlapping atop them punctuates Sands' sixty-six days of deprivation. A flock of birds flying off represents Sands' soul taking flight in a sequence that at least borders on the clichéd, but, like so much of the film, makes itself at least stand apart through sheer force of will.