Hunger Artist

Steve McQueen, Hunger, 2008, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Left: Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbenger). Right: Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) and Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon)

Issues of control, power, and defiance are central to nearly every frame of Hunger, artist Steve McQueen’s first feature film, which won the Camera d’Or at last month’s Cannes Film Festival. The tension between extremes is palpable throughout, with the impact of Hunger’s most violent and appalling imagery counterbalanced by its rigorous composition and patient construction. In his recounting of events in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in the months leading up to and during Bobby Sands’s sixty-six-day hunger strike, which culminated in Sands's being the first of ten IRA inmates to die in an effort to gain recognition as political prisoners, McQueen displays his own kind of defiance. Though the film's visual austerity and documentary-like immediacy bring to mind the early TV dramas and features of British social-realist filmmakers Ken Loach and Alan Clarke, McQueen consistently upends expectations about how his film ought to look and behave—both as a docudrama and as the work of a visual artist making the difficult transition to narrative features. (Julian Schnabel may get Oscar nominations these days, but big-screen efforts by Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, and David Salle all fit into a larger pattern of flops.)

For one thing, Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) doesn’t even emerge as the film’s subject until a third of the way through the script, which McQueen authored with Irish playwright Enda Walsh. The closely observed experiences of Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), a vicious but internally conflicted prison guard, and Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a determined young IRA prisoner, serve to establish a context for Sands’s decision, which he then justifies to a visiting priest (played by Liam Cunningham) in a pair of extraordinarily lengthy single-take scenes that are as psychologically nuanced and thoughtful as the preceding scenes of prison brutality are horrific.

The final section’s depiction of Sands’s self-sacrifice mostly takes place in a kind of awed silence; having exhausted his use for words, Sands seems able to communicate only through the hideous lesions that appear on his emaciated body. Not surprisingly, the human form in extreme states of distress is Hunger’s primary visual motif, and the viscera coming out of those bodies manages to cover nearly every visible surface in the prisoners’ tightly confining and tightly controlled environment. Though such sights as a cell wall caked with prisoners’ feces can never exactly be beautified, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s neutral presentation dignifies them without excessively aestheticizing them. An even more primal physicality inheres in the actors’ performances. Whereas visual artists who attempt feature films frequently do not know what to do with the people in front of their cameras (think of Norman Mailer’s cringe-inducing appearance in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2), McQueen is a highly capable director of actors, as evidenced by the centerpiece scene with Sands and Father Dominic Moran.

Only in the last part of the film does Hunger lose force, as the director resorts to some trite imagery to convey Sands’s final moments—unsurprisingly, the textbook lyricism of birds taking flight does not fit very well in a movie whose signature shot might be of a prison guard mopping up puddles of urine. But McQueen has done more than enough to convince viewers of his huge promise as a filmmaker. No recent British movie has been quite so ferocious. (Hunger also qualifies as the most stylistically radical film about the Troubles since Elephant, a still-bracing nonnarrative 1989 short by the late Clarke. If Hunger’s most shocking moment, of Raymond’s murder by an IRA assassin, is a fair indication, Clarke’s movie was as much an inspiration for McQueen as it was for Gus Van Sant, who borrowed the title for his 2003 Palme d’Or winner.)

But McQueen also manages to wrest from his subject a sense of contemporary relevance. The images in Hunger are too uncomfortably familiar for this exercise in reconstruction to be perceived at a historical remove. McQueen has said that when he began the project at the beginning of 2003, “there was no Iraq War, no Guantánamo Bay, no Abu Ghraib.” However, his film will inevitably be regarded within the context of these events. In such extreme circumstances, the human body may be the last desperate frontier of protest. Hunger makes this all too clear.