Saturday, December 3, 2011

Overlooked Gems #15: Hunger

Grade: 77 (B+)

“Show, don’t tell.” So goes the old dictum of show-business. Too many filmmakers feel the need to explain away too much in the early going of their films. But it’s far more effective to throw the audience into the action right away. Here’s the truth: if we care, we’ll catch up. British director Steve McQueen knows this principle, and he demonstrates it his striking debut, 2008’s Hunger. Very little explanation is given for what’s going on aside from brief background information on the 1981 IRA hunger strike. The film jumps right in to the action of the grim setting, and what a grim setting it is.

1981: The Thatcher administration has refused to grant imprisoned IRA members their political prisoner status. In response, they have taken to a series of protests: they refuse to wear prison clothes, they don’t wash, they empty their bedpans into the halls, and they smear their excrement over their cells. Hunger’s first half focuses on a handful of prisoners as they protest, pass messages, and are relentlessly beaten by the guards. They go through a series of rituals each day to keep themselves sane. Similarly, one guard has his own rituals: to keep the madness of the prison behind him, he smokes outside alone in the snow, dunks his hands (sore from beatings) in warm water, and checks under his car each morning for bombs. He knows that his work puts him at risk for an IRA hit.

McQueen’s focus on ritual gives a great sense of the world. These horrific events are business as usual for these men, and it’s important to show what they’re up against. A painter, McQueen has a great sense of stillness that brings heightened attention to everything on screen; anything can happen at any moment, and when it does, it’s important. Sometimes McQueen’s showy direction gets the best of him sometimes, particularly in some of the later scenes involving Michael Fassbender’s mental deterioration, but it’s clear he’s a talented director on his way to something great.

The film’s second half zeroes in on Bobby Sands (Fassbender), a prisoner who comes up with an idea for a gradual hunger strike. He will start, and a new prisoner will begin every two weeks. He knows he will probably die, as Margaret Thatcher refuses to compromise or negotiate with the prisoners. There is a 15-minute sequence in which Sands and his priest meet and discuss the strike. First they have small talk, then Sands tells Father Dom about the strike and the two argue about it. The first ten minutes consist of a single, static shot. Neither actor moves very much. Their posture and conversation mean enough.

When the film finally cuts to Fassbender’s face, it’s with purpose: now he’s going to give the reason why he’s willing to die. Fassbender has been called an heir to Daniel Day-Lewis; it’s an apt comparison. The two have the same magnetism, the same striking looks, and the same commitment to their roles. Fassbender’s Bobby Sands is a man who will not stand by and do nothing; he must take action. The film’s last twenty minutes cover Sands’ final days. The good-looking man is now skeletal, sickly, and covered in oozing sores. It’s a horrific transformation that shows what a man is willing to do for a principle. It isn’t necessary to agree with Sands; he is an IRA member, and his involvement in a guard’s death is clear. But it’s difficult not to respect his dedication.

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