Chainsaw Cheerleader Reviews: Hunger (2008)
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: Steve McQueen, Enda Walsh
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Liam McMahon
Genre: biography, history, drama
Bobby Sands: I always felt that thief next to Jesus got off lightly.
Father Dominic Moran: Ah, but he recognized his sins.
Bobby Sands: Did he though?
Father Dominic Moran: Aye. Said as much.
Bobby Sands: When you’re hung from a cross you’re gonna say anything. Jesus offers him a seat next to his daddy in a place called paradise you’re always gonna put your hand up and have a piece of that.
Father Dominic Moran: Aye. Even when it’s nailed to your cross.
Northern Ireland is a world unto its own. In 1981, as cries of public protest fell upon deaf ears, many turned to violence in order to be heard. While Northern Ireland remained under British control, the 1960’s would see a period of ethno-political conflict titled The Troubles, which would last thirty years. At its core, The Troubles, brought about such vicious protest due to two key issues. 3,526 people would die due to the fight over the relationship between Unionists (Protestants) and Nationalists (Catholic) and the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
With such dire times, it often takes a momentous event to speak to a people that have been deafened by violence. To evoke poignant change often most people must witness complete and utter inhumanity. But when in a world ruled by violence how does one speak to the masses when brutality is a daily event? Change at times, can come through the smallest and nonviolent of gestures. For Bobby Sands, his body had become his last form of protest. As a last resort, while locked away in Belfast’s Maze prison, Bobby starves himself to death to protest the cause he believes in to his very last breath.
Hunger follows the journey of the last six weeks of Provisional Republican Army (IRA) member, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). As the IRA fights to reclaim political status, Davey (Brain Milligan), a new IRA prisoner that has just arrived at Maze prison, is labeled a “non-conforming prisoner” and is thus imprisoned in H block (a section of Maze prison reserved for IRA prisoners). Davey rooms with a fellow IRA member who, in protest, has smeared the walls and ceiling with feces. As his roommate shows Davey how the imprisoned IRA members live and the tactics they use to protest within the prison, Davey soon meets Bobby, the leader of the imprisoned group. It is Bobby who reinforces morale as the British controlled prison allows its guards to severally beat, degrade, and torture the men. Bobby leads the men through three different protests. The first being the Blanket Protest (which the men refuse to wear prison uniforms), second the Dirty Protest (which the men do not bath or cut their hair), and finally the Hunger Strike. It is the Hunger Strike that takes the life of Bobby Sands and eight of his fellow IRA members.
To understand why a man would starve himself to death is to understand not only how 1980’s Irish politics worked but how deeply Sands believed in his cause. After being convicted for possession of a firearm, Sands was sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment. While not being able to affect the political landscape outside the walls of Maze prison, Sands believed a hunger strike would draw attention to the IRA’s cause. Sands believed that in order to gain a great deal of publicity he and the other IRA members would strike at different intervals in order to prolong the protest. The aim of the hunger strike was to have the men declared political prisoners and to achieve some form of political standing. The British Government would grant all demands but refused to give them official acknowledgment of political status. During the three strikes nine men would die and sixteen prison officers would be killed (shot by hit men outside of the prison). Sands could not go to his government and ask that his people be helped. Those who joined the IRA were largely ignored and thought of as less then. As violence was answered with violence, Sands faith in his cause became justified as the British Government decided to imprison or kill those who stood up against them. Through Sands eyes, his death was the only way to draw attention to the treatment of his people at the hands of the British Government. At a young age he realized that if one does not speak for the group then non will. In Hunger, Sands reflects upon this as he talks with a priest. Sands tells the priest that once when he was a young boy, he and several class mates were running by a river. At the water’s edge a newborn animal had fallen on the rocks and cut herself deeply. The animal was slowly and painfully dying. The boys argued over what should be done but they did nothing. Sands parted from the boys and held the animal’s head under the water and killed it. A teacher saw what he had done and punished him for it. Despite the punishment, Sands knew what he did was right and stood up for the animal that could not help itself. It would be his younger self, the boy who did what he believed to be right for the sake of the animal, that he would hallucinate about as his brain shrunk due to starvation. His younger self looked upon his dying self and stood silent. Neither giving praise nor rage, he softly took his dying self’s hand and comforted him.
Hunger is, video artist, Steve McQueen’s first movie. McQueen paid great attention to creating and filming beautiful shots. While the story is ugly, McQueen let the visual element of the film tell the story rather than the prisoners themselves. For example, not one word to exchanged between the prisoners and the guards. It is the violence between the two that speaks for them. This is best displayed when the guards line a hallway in full riot gear. As they smash their batons against their shields the camera pulls back to reveal a guard who has turned the corner, with his back up against wall, sobbing as he is revolted by the torture of the prisoners and the guards enjoyment of it. Another example occurs when the prisoners have gathered urine in paper bowls and then pour the urine out the bottom crack of their cell doors. The urine flows into the hallway. Shortly after a lone guard is seen mopping it up. The silence between the two warring groups declares that when one group acts the other will react (often in a brutal manner).
The true success of Hunger is that McQueen has done what few directors can, taking on a political subject without taking sides. While remaining neutral, McQueen focuses on the dark realities of the event. McQueen presents the facts and allows the viewer to make up his/her mind about the situation. Another high light of the film is that McQueen was able to portray Sands a neither a hero or a villain. The viewer neither pities him nor are they angered by him. As the viewer watches Sands slowly waste away, McQueen simply documents the process of his death. For any director to be able to accomplish this throughout an entire film is truly noteworthy.
McQueen took into account Irish folklore and used it to help explain the dying process. In Irish folklore, low flying birds are omens that foretell a change for good or bad. After Sands is seen puking blood, he painfully rolls over, and convulses. In the process of his image fading dark bird fly from tree tops into the night. The camera then shifts around the room, while still focused on Sands. The swooping motion of the camera gives the impression that the viewer is witnessing his deterioration through the eyes of a bird. This omen also appears at his death. McQueen never reveals whether this omen will bring about good or bad.
Hunger contains the longest shot in mainstream film. McQueen recorded in a single shot 17 minutes of unbroken dialogue between Sands and a priest. As the camera stays in the same position for the entirety of the shot, Sands and the priest discus the morality of a hunger strike. The length of the shot is not to bore or bother the viewer, it is important dialogue that explains why Sands has chosen to take that path he is on. It is during this time that the viewer will hear Sands philosophies and determination. It is the only time throughout the entire film.
In order to prepare for this scene, Michael Fassbender would rehearse the 17 minutes worth of dialogue with the actor who played the priest up to fifteen times in a single day. Having to remember 17 minutes of dialogue for a single shot requires a great deal from an actor. The ability to achieve and master this feet says a great deal about the actor.
As Bobby Sands, Fassbender is astonishing. Fassbender has acted in 300, Inglourious Basterds, and Band of Brothers. Despite having been in a number of well received films, he is almost unrecognizable in appearance. After losing over thirty-five pounds to play an emaciated Sands, Fassbender can almost be compared to Christian Bale in The Machinist. While not as malnourished as Bale, Fassbender had clearly dedicated himself to the role.
For some the violence that occurs in Hunger may be too much. McQueen blatantly depicts the reported events of violence and wicked punishments handed down by the guards of Maze Prison. The fact that the prisoner’s humanity was taken away and they were treated as less then at the hands of fellow human beings may be hard for some people not only to watch but to understand. One example of this takes place during the no wash protest. With over grown beards and long hair, the prisoners are dragged from their cells and held down so that a guard may cut their hair. Using large scissors, the guard not only cuts their hair but large pieces of their scalp as well. A second example of this takes place when several guards search the anuses and then mouths of the prisoners while using the same pair of gloves. Lastly, after being severely beaten, Sands drops onto the floor of his cell and rolls over with blood coming out of his mouth. The blood streams up the corner of his mouth, making it appear as a bloody smile.
Hunger is a retelling of history. It does not take sides but simply reports the facts. It is for you, the viewer to decide who was right and who was wrong. It is for you to ponder how far would you go to fight for something you believed in with all your life.
Hunger receives a 7 1/2 out of 10