Dir. Steve McQueen. Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Brian Milligan
After the debut of 12 Years a Slave, the charges that McQueen’s direction – his long takes, his still camera, his artful establishing shots – was “gimmicky” or, more inscrutably, “distracted from the film” began to proliferate. I’ve always thought that was primarily a response to the scene where Solomon, feet slipping in the mud, strains to prevent his hanging. It’s one of the most difficult shots to sit through in the film, and doubtless that played into the “distracted” criticism. Few shots in a film allow us the time in the moment to reconsider their composition, and there’s more than one moment in 12 Years a Slave that does just that. I’m not an orthodox phenomenologist, but I’d be hard-pressed to say that our reactions to a film are totally separate from the film itself.
The thing is, McQueen is a minimalist, a Mies van der Rohe for the cinema. 12 Years a Slave has so much to look at, and draws our attention in those long shots from a still camera; I can understand that feeling, like if someone painted a checked pattern on the facade of Farnsworth House. Hunger is a better example of McQueen’s style, pitting spareness with unsparing vision. There’s less to look at; each shot is less rich, but more brutal. There are only three or four colors in each shot as opposed to eight or twelve. McQueen is best when he mirrors Mondrian. The difference between those two is McQueen creates such revulsion in his shots, and in Hunger he combines simplicity with disgust to create one of the most stunning films of the century.
McQueen’s appetizer for revulsion is primarily fecal. Davey Gillen (Milligan), our guide to Maze prison, explains to the warden that he does not intend to wear the prison uniform. He strips, is given a blanket, and meets his cellmate. There’s a magnificent shot which pans around the room, lingering on the floor, the chamberpot, the walls. The light comes from one broken window. The walls are really what get you. “I think that’s shit, but I really hope it’s food, but I can’t fool myself, that’s shit smeared all over the walls, and these guys are just in blankets?” Davey has a cellmate, Gerry (Liam MacMahon). Gerry is as bearded and long-haired as a young John Brown. He looks much more relaxed than Davey, whose thoughts are at least as rapid as ours – “Is he nervous because he’s in prison or because he’s in this cell?” – and asks how long he’s got. “Six years,” Davey says. Liam has twelve: “Lucky bastard.”
Without saying much at all, we get a sense of what happens at Maze. The prisoners are putting their shit on the wall and using mounds of their smushed-up food to attract maggots and guide their urine into the hallway. It’s winter, and all of them are in sitting in their bare, cold cells surrounded by their own filth. It seems unbelievable until we figure out that the prisoners postpone any sort of interaction with the guards on purpose; when the guards are about, the Republicans get beaten into a pulp. In one memorable scene, a series of naked men with wild hair and huge beards are throwing themselves in any direction until someone comes along and drives a fist into their stomachs, or bends them over a mirror, or shaves off their hair and beard crudely until the blood is just everywhere, as long as everywhere is the face of the man or the hand of the guard.
It’s actually the first scene where Bobby Sands (Fassbender) shows up, though I don’t know how you could possibly know that in advance. It’s a great entrance for him, and one which changes the direction of the plot. The plot synopses of Hunger overwhelmingly call it “the story of Sands’ last days” or “the chronicle of a hunger strike,” but Hunger is far more than that, willing to view other people in its lens. In that way it is a more effective film, for as compelling as Fassbender’s Sands is, bringing in Milligan’s newcomer Gillen is much more powerful; to see it with fresh eyes first and then to become jaded with the iniquities at Maze is sobering.
Fassbender is one of those men with the hair and the beard and the nakedness, and he screams and roars in tones with the rest of them. Guards in riot gear, banging their clubs against their shields and screaming with expectation, ultimately turn their weapons on the inmates. (It was around this point that I thought to myself, “I don’t want to watch this anymore.” I’ve turned off movies in the middle before for boredom; I was offended by a moment in Game of Thrones and haven’t turned it back on since. What happened to me while I was watching Hunger had nothing to do with boredom, or distaste, or even discomfort; it was this uneasy feeling of embarrassment, like I shouldn’t be seeing it, that it shouldn’t have happened at all. It was empathy. There’s a surrogate for us onscreen in a guard who stands away, outside, and cries.)
Bobby takes a massive blow, directly in the eye, from a prison guard (Stuart Graham), who proceeds to shear him. The revelation that it’s Michael Fassbender under there was doubtless a little less remarkable – and thus more effective – in 2008 than it is now. All the same, we can see that this man is filled with energy despite his adversity; we’re looking at a man who has the strength to fight back, the will to struggle even when it does him no good. If he had stayed still while his hair was cut off, then he would have gotten through without much injury. But the thought of not fighting back is toxic to him, more toxic than his surrounding. In Maze, there’s not much that he can do besides writhe, at least not in that moment. Outside the prison, others can fight for him. In one of the few scenes which take place outside Maze in Hunger, that prison guard, who soothes his hands in hot water frequently to treat his perpetually sore knuckles, who drops crumbs onto his napkin at breakfast, is shot in the neck at a nursing home. The message is clear, almost holy: if you’re prepared to kill, prepare to be killed as well.
McQueen’s vision, up to this point, has been largely quiet. People don’t speak very much or very loudly except when they’re screaming, in which case they do it in bunches. The light is bad in virtually the entire movie, but it’s been dark, or merely fluorescent, so far. The clearest voice has been Margaret Thatcher’s, explaining how “crime is crime is crime,” that there can be no such thing as political crime. (It’s too bad for previous prime ministers that they didn’t think of that line, because it might have struck Mohandas K. Gandhi dead from a distance of fifty paces.) A scene or two passes. A priest (Cunningham) is allowed into the prison. He meets with Bobby in an empty room. The camera is placed so that both men are largely in profile – Bobby can’t sit still, so “profile” is an empty word for him – and it is left there for seventeen minutes. No editing, no movement, nothing. It is a profound shot, one that absolutely shivers the viewer’s expectations. McQueen is not much given to throwing his camera around anyway, but this scene, which goes on for what feels like ages – it must contain 75% or better of the film’s total dialogue – is unreal. Much of it is seemingly aimless talk, though we soon come to understand why Father Dominic has come to Maze prison; it’s to dissuade Bobby from what he views as a suicide mission. Bobby’s bringing a hunger strike back to Maze, as it’s obvious that the blanket protests and no-wash protests – years in the making – are doing nothing. A hunger strike, he hopes, one that is staggered for maximum effect, one that will kill Irishmen, is the thing which will create the most outrage and dialogue. Father Dominic agrees that it will kill Irishmen, but otherwise disagrees with Bobby on every count.
When the camera does change, it is placed underneath Bobby, looking up at him in the fluorescent spotlight, magically more white than yellow in this scene. He’s stopped smoking his cigarette; he’s gone through two in this conversation already, and he’s clearly ravenous for more. Like Jesus, he speaks in parables. He tells the story of how, at a cross-country meet, he and many other boys stumbled upon a foal with a broken leg in a pond. Knowing that his teammates would take the blame, and willing to take the punishment for the sake of others (ding ding ding), Bobby does what no one else has the strength to do: drown the horse.
Ironically, the weakest parts of the movie are at the end as Bobby gets thinner and thinner, slipping in and out of consciousness, getting visitors sometimes but mostly deaf to them. His bowels void only blood. He is broken out in painful sores. He looks like he’ll die and then lasts much, much longer. This final horse-drowning sequence is visually less stunning than earlier moments; perhaps McQueen has lowered the intensity just a little so that we can think about the ramifications of Bobby’s protest. Like the song says, when there’s nothing left to burn, you must set yourself on fire. When no one will listen to a thing you say, you can still kill yourself and leave an indelible message.