Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Enda Walsh and Steve McQueen
Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt, B.S.C.
Film Editor Joe Walker
Production Designer Tom McCullough
Sound Designer Paul Davies
Original Music by David Holmes with Leo Abrahams
Produced by Laura Hastings-Smith and Robin Gutch
1981. Maze Prison, Northern Ireland.
Night: there's a protest in the streets, people banging the asphalt with pot lids.
Later: morning: there's a middle-aged man in a house on a quaint little street in Ireland. His dutiful wife makes him a heart attack breakfast, and then he goes out to his car, gets down like he's doing push-ups, but, no, he's just checking under his car for a bomb. No bomb. He looks up and down the street. Presumably, he sees nothing. He gets in his car, drives to work.
This middle-aged man is a cop of some rank. We see excerpts from his day having to do with his job which mostly involves beating imprisoned Irish Republican Army soldiers with his bare knuckles, but we don't see much of the actual beatings until later. The man's knuckles are bloody, raw. He stands outside in the snow, sucking down cigarette smoke, his uniform shirt showing visible sweat stains. He seems to be carrying a terrible anxiety within him that could break out at any moment. Maybe that anxiety fuels his violence.
When you're angry, you don't feel anxious. But what about those moments where there's no one to beat? What happens when you're alone with your anxiety, maybe even your guilt? He's less a cop, and more of a prison guard/torturer. But this man is no villain, no fascist pig, no incarnation of evil. He is a human who is being worn down by his job, by the ongoing stress of being a violent agent of state power. He is, in the bold moral perspective of the film Hunger, just as degraded by the oppressive tactics of the British government as the imprisoned Irish Republicans using their piss and shit as tools of protest inside their cells.
This is all a set-up, in a sense, to dramatize the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, but it is more than that.
Yes, this movie is on the side of the men in the cells, but it also shows how state violence degrades its agents and perpetrators, and how murder is unleashed on both sides of a bitter, intractable conflict.
That middle-aged man? Well, (SPOILER WARNING) he gets a bullet in the brain from an IRA assassin. His violent death is not presented as a victory. This man, prior to his death, was shown as a torturer, as someone who did horrible things to helpless human beings. But he was also shown to have a wife, an aging mother, and inexpressible guilt, fear, and anxiety feeding into borderline paranoia. This character is not sanitized, nor is his death presented as something to be cheered by a safe, comfortable audience in a theatre, or sitting before a laptop or flatscreen TV. His death is portrayed as cruel and irrevocable.
When you watch Hunger, you will most likely come away from it profoundly impressed by the level of violence and filth, and by the rawness of actor Michael Fassbender's performance as hunger striker Bobby Sands, a historical figure I was totally ignorant of before watching this movie. Bobby Sands, in conventional storytelling terms, is arguably the protagonist of the story, and yet he does not appear onscreen for almost a half hour. This isn't a long movie, either. It's 96 minutes, so that's basically an hour and a half of movie plus the end credit roll.
During that first half hour, the Maze Prison is established as a hell on earth, except it is a hell created by human beings, not gods and devils. The guards and police officials supply the violence, torture, and interrogation, and the prisoners cover the walls of their tiny cells--two men to a cell--with layers of shit. They eat only a little bit of the food provided for them, and then they throw the rest in a corner to rot. The prisoners sculpt their mashed potatoes into funnels to channel jug-loads of piss back out onto the floor where the guards patrol. As an audience, we are treated to these tactics of protest, but we are also shown the other side, the clean-up. Some poor bastard has to put on disposable protective gear, splash cleaning fluid all up and down the piss-flooded hallway floor, and then mop it. Every now and again, maybe once a month, the prisoners are dragged out of their cells, deloused, given new clothes, and a guy with a pressure-washer has to go into each cell and spray that shit off the walls.
My absolute favorite scene was the one where the policeman on pressure-wash duty goes into a cell and sees a repugnant, yet sublime, shit spiral on the wall, and, before he starts to clean it off, he actually lifts up his safety visor to behold the thing with his own eyes. In that moment, I felt bad for that guy. It didn't matter that he was on the side of the oppressor. Here was a human being forced to do a terrible job. A human being who doesn't make much money, and would probably rather be with his wife or girlfriend or his friends at the pub. But instead he has to pressure-wash layers of human feces from the walls of a hellish prison.
But in that moment, too, there is some kind of weird communication of an artistic vision. Because it's not just a wall smeared with shit in that moment. This poor, confined soul took the time to make a terrifying spiral out of his own shit. The prisoner transformed his gesture of defiance into art. The police on clean-up duty sees that, when he lifts his safety visor. It's just one of those things that has to be seen with the naked eyeballs. I'll bet the smell got inside his helmet, too. This was an aesthetic experience that could never be had in any gallery.
When Bobby Sands is introduced into the story, he is portrayed as a fighter, and the movie goes to great lengths to show that his hunger strike is a conscious, tactical, and strategic decision. His logic is that if he is willing to show both sides of the conflict his willingness to die that this will galvanize the Irish Republican resistance fighters, and force the Thatcherite British government to recognize the IRA as a political entity, and not just a criminal organization.
His strike is taken up by others within the prison. So he's not alone in laying his life on the line. The movie doesn't shy away from asserting that Bobby Sands's decision to give up his life also results in the willing deaths of other hunger strikers. Bobby knows this, and acknowledges that he believes in the necessity of having men die to pursue the ultimate political ends of the IRA.
Bobby is challenged by a compassionate priest who visits him, gives him cigarettes, and valiantly tries to talk him out of his protest. This scene, this confrontation between Bobby and a priest (played by Liam Cunningham) is masterfully staged and acted in a way which I will not reveal. It represents a jarring departure from what has gone before, but you just have to see it for yourself. I admired director Steve McQueen's choice in how he stages this confrontation.
The technical side of this production is masterful throughout. Notice how there's almost no conventional musical scoring on the soundtrack. Rather, McQueen and his collaborators use realistic sounds pared down to their essence to create the visceral reality of each scene, whether it is a brutal beating of naked prisoners by a gang of armored cops, or a lonely cop taking a smoke break in the snow. In one key scene, the only soundtrack is the insistent back and forth of human voices in a large, empty room. Naturalism is the key to every element of the technical design of this movie. Even the hallucinations of a human mind breaking down from starvation are rooted in grim, physiological reality.
Bobby Sands is the protagonist of this movie, but he isn't presented as a Hollywood historical hero like El Cid or William Wallace. Sands's death is not portrayed as a transcendent sacrifice. There is no stirring music, nor propaganda montages of the people rising up to throw off the yoke of the oppressor. It is a realistic, and horrifying portrayal of what happens to a starving human body. But it is contextualized by the overall brutality of the Maze Prison, where inmates and guards alike are dehumanized on the front lines of a tragic, and drawn-out struggle.