One part Alan Clarke-style decontextualized social realism, another part Cronenbergian body horror, Steve McQueen’s Hunger immediately reminded me of Amy Taubin’s take on Eastern Promises: “The effect of the entire movie is that it’s written on the body in an extreme way.” McQueen’s own intense focus on the body, from extensive shots of wounds, beatings and the exhalation of smoke down to the literally biological level of the prisoner’s shit and piss, tells the tale of revolutionary spirit not through historical biopic, nor even narrative itself, but purely through a poetic meditation on the physical nature of the sacrifice made by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the other prisoners who revolted against the British and eventually starved themselves to death in protest. Sidestepping the trappings of yet another emotional retelling of the events surrounding the Irish “Troubles” or a purely reverential character drama about Sands’ heroism, McQueen examines political resistance from a microcosmic level. He makes us see resistance in terms of its effects on the bodies of those making the sacrifices.
Hunger takes place in 1981 inside the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, where many of the IRA prisoners are currently involved in the “Blanket and No-Wash” protest to gain political status. The film immediately throws us into the mix, bypassing prologue and exposition to instead provide an efficient yet provocative visual contrast – a middle-class man checking for bombs underneath his car before leaving for work while another man is put into a prison cell with a man who has smeared his feces over every square inch of the walls. If McQueen’s sympathies tend to lie with the IRA members throughout much of the film, he is still careful to set up the situation at Maze as an impossible predicament for both the guards and inmates. The brutality of their behavior, highlighted by a brilliantly executed audio-visual assault near the middle of the film when the prisoners are sent one by one through a gauntlet of men in riot gear, severely beaten and violently searched, is less a condemnation of the guards' individual hatred for the inmates than of the institutionalized dehumanization perpetrated by those much higher up on the power scale. This scene, along with many others in the film, is not a mere recreation of events, but symbolically represents the IRA’s struggles against British rule.
McQueen conveys this large-scale conflict through a focused eye on the minutia that other directors wouldn't give a second though. Through a wondrous mix of poetics and harsh realism, Maze is transformed into a hell where conflict and suffering is cyclical and never-ending. Bifurcating the film is a ten-minute conversation between Sands and his priest as they reevaluate their strategy, realizing that the no-wash protest has not achieved the desired results. Their talk not only provides relief from the prison environment that the film’s first half so carefully details, but also gives the audience the historical background necessary to make sense of the rest of the film. The priest sees the hunger strike that Sands so vehemently supports as nothing more than suicidal -- a form of self-destruction that can lead to no end other than death.
Through the punishment he had gone through at the hands of the guards in the first half of the film, Sands sees no alternative to his own physical sacrifice. Discussions and other forms of protest have led to no meaningful results, so a rebellion of the body as an illustration of British oppression is the only hope he sees left. Following Sands' discussion with his priest, the film documents the results of his decision--the slow disintegration of Sands’ body as it wastes away over the next 66 days. Here again, McQueen hones in on sores and the sounds of struggle, only this time the wounds are self-inflicted. There is no attempt to set Sands up as a great martyr, no Jesus pose or sentimental music to manipulate emotions. Hunger is interested in none of this. Instead, he lets the bodies that sacrificed themselves tell the story they created.