Friday, June 29, 2012

Hunger (2008)

Consumed with artistic ugliness and teeth-grindingly nasty realism, Hunger is the first film by up-and-coming director Steve McQueen, not to be confused with the The Great Escape man. No. This Steve McQueen is big, black, and British, and knows more about European prisons in the 80's than any man should be comfortable knowing.

     The setting is 1981 Ireland, and the film follows Bobby Sands, a real person, we are told. Bobby is played by Michael Fassbender, who is now acclaimed for playing in McQueen's new NC-17 drama Shame. Fassbender is considered a handsome man by many, and seeing him brought to this sad physical state is disturbing, to say the least.

     The real Bobby Sands, an member of the Irish Republican Army, was arrested for keeping handguns in his home, with a history of other suspected crimes. In the movie, we are never told this. He is simply there, participating with the others in a no-wash strike, demanding better treatment. His rebellion is quickly and brutally ended when a group of guards drag him, kicking and screaming, and cut his unshaven hair and beard.

    Undeterred, Bobby begins to starve himself, but not before a serious talk with one of cinema's only cool priests, Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). What the 'ole father's saying is, basically, don't do it.

     Despite the father's strong urging not to proceed, Bobby does, and both he and his counterpart Fassbender begin rapidly losing weight (my mother says Fassbender's weight loss took "dedication," and I agree, but dedication leaning towards insanity.)

    Sound unpleasant? It is. Sand's story is linked with the stories of prisoners Davey Gillen and Gerry Campbell (Brian Milligan and Liam McMahon) and prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) who might feel guilt about the whole situation. Or he might not. Hard to tell, since the film has minimal dialogue. He might just be an unhappy guy.

    At first, I found this movie to be a bit of a bore. Bread crumbs falling onto a lap? Why waste a close-up on that? (I stand by what I said then on that matter.) But, just when I thought I'd have to admit my stance to the film snobs of the world and endure their rage, it got better. It was around the time of the brutal rest home scene (which wasn't very restful) and the conversation between Bobby and Father Dominic, which goes on for seventeen minutes, according to Wikipedia, but doesn't get old.

     The realism really stands out here. The filth, the feces, the full-frontal male nudity that prudish or fearful American filmmakers try so desperately to hide. Yup, schwangs flop a-freely, but rarely in a titillating way. The acting seems similarly real, as do the little details (radio 'phones up the vagina? That's *one* way to get them to your jailed hubby.)

    I did think that Bobby's character seemed a little underdeveloped. He was passionate about his cause, and the ambiguity of that cause was thoroughly explored. But he wasn't developed enough for me to fully care about him. My favorite character was the priest who, in his one short scene,  was neither bitter, hypocritical, rapey, or pedophilic, and gave off the best impression.

     An interesting watch for people who either do or don't know a lot about English-Irish hostilities, Hunger is worth watching through the slower parts, and at 98 minutes, it's short and concise. It pulls no punches, offers no enemies (except maybe Margaret Thatcher) and gives a compelling look into an ugly part of history.

     Note - The condition of the penitentiary makes modern American prisons look like Disneyland, and makes you not only think about basic human rights, but also about foreign state institutions that leave their prisoners in similar conditions.


  1. While I can see where you are coming from, I actually liked some of the aspects of the film you found dull. Those little moments, like the breadcrumbs falling on the prison guard's lap, trained me to watch closely and gave me a sense of the tedium and monotony of the prison guard's life.

    I felt like the spare dialogue gave me room to think and ponder the characters. Did the prison guard feel ashamed of the things he had to do, was he simply worn down by his tedious, grim line of work, or both? And I definitely got a sense of the slow, monotonous pace of prison life, broken up by moments of violence and brutality.

    And egads, seeing the Fassbender character waste away and die, in front of his parents, was agonizing.

  2. Great review! I think McQueen is one of the most promising directors nowadays and he makes one hell of the movies with Fassbender, who was just mesmerizing here.


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