Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hunger (2008) A Film by Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen's brutal, transcendent prison drama Hunger has to be one of the most impressive films to not win a Palme D'Or in the Cannes Film Festival's long and vibrant history. Weaving its serpentine, minimalist narrative through the stories of prison officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), two cell partners named Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) and Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon), and finally the desperate martyr who becomes the film's main focal point, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), McQueen essentially divides his film up into two stages in the extended revolt of Irish Republican Army prisoners: the initial dirty revolt, which entails the refusal to bathe and the spreading of human waste, and the tragic hunger strike of the film's title. More fundamentally though, it's pitched between atrocity and contemplation, as the visceral battle of the first half gradually gives way to morbid silence. This dissection of a historical event - the 1981 IRA strike - marks a sharp left turn in the career of director Steve McQueen, who has hitherto worked principally in the realm of structuralist installation art. His grasp of the cinematic medium in the feature-length format, however, is clearly significant. Though the film progresses rather like an abstract tone poem, failing, perhaps intentionally, to delve too deeply into character psychology, there is always - in spite of McQueen's startlingly disjunctive stylistic ideas - a coherent and otherworldly force guiding it along.

The weighty political implications of the film are more or less brushed under the rug by McQueen in favor of viscera and emotionality. This is, of course, really a monolithic conflict between a subversive clan of Irish Republicans and the cold, didactic Thatcher regime, which had at the time been ambivalent and discriminatory towards the Roman Catholic community of Northern Ireland, but it's treated more as a timeless battle between an oppressive authority and the seemingly powerless underdogs. The disembodied radio voice of Margaret Thatcher (or "vapor", as McQueen describes it) doesn't enter into the film until three-quarters of the way through, emphasizing the insignificance of political conflict when placed aside real, physical conflict. Political conflict, McQueen suggests, is what allows a government official to hide behind her curtain and coolly analyze a situation without actually understanding it. Hunger marks an attempt to shed light on the vicious human battle that went on inside the Maze Prison without any presuppositions about who's right or wrong. Neither the prisoners nor the often savage guards are cheaply antagonized; McQueen takes pains to reveal them in both moments of quiet introspection and erratic violence. Raymond Lohan, for instance, is first shown eating breakfast in the calm of his suburban home before heading to work, where, after checking for bombs planted underneath his car, he routinely terrorizes the prisoners. Later, he compassionately visits his comatose mother at a geriatric home. All in a day's work.

Raymond's story is mostly backgrounded though by those of the prisoners. Naked and surrounded by filth of the scatological and insect sort, the men waste away somberly in their cells, fiddling with secretly transported notes detailing some vague, unidentified scheme (an escape, or perhaps the eventual shocking murder of Raymond?). For all of the tactile sensations - the overwhelming reek, the ubiquitous slime - McQueen presents the cells as something of a spiritual abode, a place of relative tranquility in comparison to the violence and exploitation that is endured outside the excrement-caked walls. The lone source of light in the cell is a diminutive window that collides with the various contents of the room to produce a warm, golden glow, a sense of holiness juxtaposed against the decidedly unholy behaviors inside (clandestine masturbation, damming of the walls to spread urine into the halls). McQueen's painterly, Costa-like compositions discover the unexpected beauty in this paradoxical space: primitivized, desperate men silhouetted against the textured surfaces, reaching out to any hint of freedom and life, such as in a long, impressionistic shot of Davey fixating his fingers on a fly circling the bars on the window. McQueen even manages to create abstract art out of a cleaner spraying the feces off the wall, an image that reflects his backdrop in gallery installation.

Hunger is necessarily low on dialogue for its majority - better to luxuriate in the primal emotions at work in the struggle, an interplay of muscle and mind that leaves no room for words - but when screenwriter (and unsurprisingly, playwright) Enda Walsh steps forward for a bravura display of linguistic profusion in an incredibly protracted scene of dialogue between Bobby Sands and a priest in an empty mess hall towards the middle of the film, it's unexpectedly effective. The heavily discussed 17 1/2 minute static take follows the most physically and emotionally extreme stretch of the film, when the prisoners are subjected to cavity searches in the face of an unrelenting SWAT team whose shield-banging provides an intense percussiveness to the scene's clamoring mise-en-scene. It's fitting, then, that the film's gradually accumulated intellectual probing coalesces out of this violent action, which heightens the sensitivity of the audience to an alarming degree. The cautious and winding path of their conversation from harmless, blackly comic small talk to full-fledged debate about the ethical implications of a hunger strike - with the priest detecting a misanthropic, murderous bent to it and Sands defending his decision as the only remaining manner of revolt - highlights the divide between ideology and experience, detached viewpoint and first-person stance, even further. Having witnessed the brutal, wordless struggle that McQueen so skillfully portrays, which culminates less out of a political ideas than it does out of sheer firsthand savagery, it's only natural that we come to side with Sands as he delivers a personal anecdote of desperation and in-the-moment decision-making in a powerful, rhythm-altering close-up.

After this burst of verbiage, the film settles into the fatal, meditative tone that marks its slow conclusion. Sands initiates the hunger strike that expands to several prisoners in the Maze, but McQueen centers his attention strictly on his protagonist as his body rapidly emaciates and his flesh forms lesions from severe depletion of nutrients. There's a deeply Christian flair to Sands' martyrdom, his singular leadership of the revolt, and his gradual weakening in the face of his cause. Perpetually in bed denying the meals delivered regularly at his side, McQueen bathes him in white light, and he is given a final, touching moment of reminiscence in a brief memory of childhood, a last escape from the oppression that surrounds him. The young Bobby is embarking on what seems to be a boy scout trip to the woods, where he eventually finds himself jogging, all alone. He stop mid-path and stares at the tall, imposing trees around him, while an atmospheric string section bubbles up from the silence, the only instance of a musical score within the narrative of Hunger. It's an appropriately enigmatic finale to this humanistic, uncomfortably moving work of art, a stylish display of the simultaneous anguish and willpower of the human spirit that loudly proclaims the entrance of a distinctive filmmaker.

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