Saturday, December 4, 2010

Short Review: Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)

Steve McQueen's Hunger is a visceral assault on the senses. What we witness during these 90 minutes is incredibly disturbing but demands our attention for the entirety and is completely gripping. The acting is astonishing and McQueen's debut filmmaking is visionary. He immediately becomes one of the most anticipated filmmakers in the world, with his newest film, Shame, is being hailed a 'masterpiece' following screenings at Venice.

Michael Fassbender (Ingourious Basterds and most recently Centurion) stars as Bobby Sands, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer who eventually led the 1981 hunger strike and participated in the no wash protest. The film opens amidst this protest, as the prisoners are refusing to wash or shave and are forcibly removed from their cells. They receive beatings by the correctional officers, their hair and beards are cut roughly with scissors, before they are thrown into a bathtub and scrubbed violently. Many of the prisoners have joined the Republican movement in an attempt to gain some political status. The events take place mostly inside the Maze Prison in the period leading up to, and including the strike of '81.

We are first introduced to one of the correctional officers, named Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham). A target of the IRA, as he leaves his house he checks underneath his car for bombs, and in a montage of scenes that document his job, he keeps to himself and rejects the friendship of his colleagues and can be seen with bloody and scabbed knuckles created by the beatings he gives the prisoners. These wounds are explained throughout the film. We are then introduced to the arrival of Davey, a new IRA prisoner. Upon his refusal to wear the prison uniform his is deemed a 'non-conforming prisoner', given only a blanket to wear, and placed in a cell with Gerry, a prison veteran who has smeared the walls of the cell with feces as a expression of art. Through Davey and Gerry, and later Bobby Sands we are revealed to the brutality present within the prison system, and the lengths that the IRA prisoners were willing to go to win some human rights.

Hunger is memorable for a couple of key sequences. The first involves the naked IRA prisoners being dragged out of their cells by their hair and forced through a line of shielded riot officers who bash them repeatedly with their batons. They are then probed first in their anus and then in their mouth by the correctional officers, often using the same pair of gloved hands for each man. As this mayhem ensues, the camera dances around the room energetically in a single shot, darting to each tormented prisoner and zooming in on his face and his screams of anguish, and you feel every painful punishment to their flesh as much as they do. The second, an exceptional sequence, is the 17-minute unbroken shot of a conversation between a priest (Liam Cunningham) and Bobby Sands as they discuss the morality of the hunger strike. Beginning the next day, Sands reveals that 75 men will participate in the hunger strike, starting consecutively two weeks apart to eliminate the flaws of a previous attempt, with some of the men likely starving to death. More resilient and determined men are to replace those that die.

The priest agrees that he supported the first hunger strike, on the basis that it was a protest, but believes that Bobby is leading these men to their predetermined deaths without even a hope of change. It is Bobby's belief that their protest will create a new generation and eliminate the recent brutality, humiliation and loss of basic human rights that Ireland has been susceptible to. Their enemy, however, is a British Government that despises Republicanism, an unshakable regime that is willing to live with the deaths of men they view as terrorists. Sands' failure to send a message with the strike will leave many men dead, families torn apart and the whole Republican movement demoralized. It's an emotionally powerful scene, impeccably rehearsed and performed, that culminates in a question to Sands: I want to know if your intent is to purely commit suicide here?

Hunger spares no details of Sands' condition and his suffering as a result of a 7 month hunger strike, and it is extremely unsettling. Sands has bleeding sores all over his body, and is suffering from kidney failure, stomach ulcers and is unable to stand on his own. Documenting and dramatizing a distressing period of recent British political history, it abandons the typical cliches of prison films and is a vital and engrossing acount. Uncompromising, vivid and near faultless cinema, this is a must-see.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (A)

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