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Weights and Measures: Steve McQueen’s “Hunger”

By Jeff Reichert | Indiewire March 17, 2009 at 1:27AM

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
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[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

Steve McQueen’s much lauded “Hunger,” an interpretation of IRA member (and as is revealed at the film’s close, elected member of parliament) Bobby Sands’s 1981 hunger strike raises questions. If McQueen’s interests are political, as one might infer given the subject matter, why the focused attention on bodies and physicality, especially heightened by the film’s tragic, ghastly end, to the near negation, at points, of anything else? And if his intentions are to abstract the physicality of a particularly horrifying political protest, why an extended single-take dialogue between Bobby Sands and a local priest that slyly weaves in the wider context and questions the nature and efficacy of hunger striking, the snatches of Margaret Thatcher commentary on the soundtrack, the revelation of Sands’s political status as an elected representative?

That “Hunger” forces us to so openly speak about the rigor of its specific filmmaking choices is perhaps the thrust of its value as a work of art, especially in a sea of films and filmmakers that either claim to approach creaky realism via the unplanned moment or efface their creation entirely. “Hunger” is coolly artificial, and openly betrays its creator’s background in the art world -- one could almost pull apart specific images (urine flooding from underneath the cell doors of Maze prison steadily joining into a single stream, the repeated superimpositions of birds flying through a grey sky, the constantly exposed flesh of the inmates) and array them on monitors around the walls of a gallery to near similar effect. Yet by narrativizing this collection, McQueen forces a discussion of his own stratagems (as would splitting it into pieces), a discussion that can’t help but mirror the lengthy conversation around methods and message which anchors the film. McQueen’s radical aesthetic and structuring decisions subtly re-politicizes “Hunger” as a work intimately concerned with choices and consequences, the personal and political.

Tossing what begins as a largely ambient, drifting work an anchor in the form of Bobby Sands perhaps represents McQueen’s most radical choice of all. Prior to the lengthy, likely apocryphal conversation between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), in which the inmate announces his intention to lead a hunger strike, our hero is merely a bit player in a chorus of bony Irish lads eking out existences between beatings in filthy cells. As spectators we’re just as confused and harried as the prisoners -- scenes end jarringly, violence is a constant, and the crisp soundwork terrorizes us further. The world of the prison is circumscribed, but oddly enough, McQueen’s first choice is to begin “Hunger” in the home of prison guard Ray Lohan who focuses on his overused knuckles before cautiously checking underneath his car for a bomb. Here and elsewhere, McQueen constantly reminds of the world outside the prison to capture the systematic, tidal nature of violence.

Once the film has duly established context, it settles down for a last act investigation of the corporeal. That the structure shakes out this way questions the very form that figure-based historical dramas (of martyrdom and otherwise) are generally forced to take -- from narrative inclusions and exclusion to the proper role of images and sounds. “Hunger” as directed by Norman Jewison or James Mangold would have been a far cry from this, which reminds more of the monasticism of Lance Hammer’s “Ballast” in spirit if not in style. It’s a thoroughly auspicious debut full of indelible sequences -- I’ve seen little on screen of late that compares in impact to the first act riot squad examination sequence (think “Salo”); if the harshly rhythmic clack of the bobbie sticks against plastic shields, the yelling, the naked flesh being beaten and probed isn’t enough, McQueen finishes with a simple De Palma–esque split-screen revealing the assault of a prisoner on one side of a wall while a newly recruited member of the guard sobs on the other side, neatly casting a wider net of empathy. Even as Sands withers into nothingness in the film’s third act, even as we see reminiscences of his childhood or the aforementioned avian imagery, we can’t help but recall the sheer heaviness afforded all that’s transpired previously, marking “Hunger” as a work as distinctly political as it is personal.

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently directing his first film, Gerrymandering.]

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