Troubles All Around


Steve McQueen’s debut film follows the misery

Steve McQueen isn’t your typical debut filmmaker. He began as a video artist, creating work like the Buster Keaton-inspired “Deadpan,” as well as an uncompleted project of postage stamps commemorating all the British soldiers killed in the Iraq War.

“Hunger” is filled with a pent-up energy, as if McQueen had been waiting years for the chance to shoot in 35mm. Set almost entirely in a Northern Ireland prison, it aestheticizes jail without making it look pretty. A few minutes into the 22-minute shot that serves as its centerpiece, I noticed that the characters’ plumes of cigarette smoke are almost the same shade of blue as the wall behind them. “Hunger” keeps reproducing the same color scheme, emphasizing the way the institutionalized violence of prison influences every aspect of life within it.

For reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, “Hunger” begins with prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) washing his bloody knuckles, and follows him around his daily duties in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison. Young prisoner Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) arrives in jail for the first time. Insisting that he’s a political prisoner, not a common criminal, he refuses to put on the prison uniform. He gets tossed in a shit-covered cell with fellow IRA member Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon).

The prison offers IRA members the chance to wear civilian clothes, but a riot breaks out when they take the offer seriously. In a lengthy scene, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) speaks with priest Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), telling the cleric that he plans to start a hunger strike. Although Moran argues furiously with him, Sands’ mind is already made up.

First and foremost, “Hunger” is concerned with the way prison reduces people to bodies. It shows the prisoners fighting back with the few tools at hand — their urine and feces. Rather than striving for dignity under difficult circumstances, they refuse to wash, shave, or cut their hair. The prisoners look like members of Pink Floyd or Jethro Tull gone to seed. They create mammoth fecal murals on their cell walls and pour their urine down the hallway.

The British police are happy to respond to their dreams of martyrdom by beating the hell out of them. No wonder the production company of Mel Gibson, who brought us the passion of an ultra-masochistic Christ, signed on for the film’s American release.

Like the last great film about terrorism, Julia Loktev’s “Day Night Day Night,” “Hunger” feels oddly apolitical. It utilizes a few Margaret Thatcher soundbites, but McQueen’s own perspective is harder to discern. One assumes that he respects the idea of Sands’ hunger strike; after all, he made a film about it that doesn’t overtly criticize Sands.

On the other hand, it’s possible that he sympathizes with the extremely articulate priest who tells Sands that he’s indulging an elaborate death wish in the guise of politics.

There’s little discourse about the morality of violence and the concept of “political murder” from the film’s characters. McQueen includes a few radio discussions about it, but they sound utterly disconnected from the day-to-day world of the prisoners and their jailers. Sands and Moran both agree about the Irish Republican goal, if not the methods used to achieve it.

However, McQueen’s images speak louder than words. The decision to begin “Hunger” by following Lohan around initially seems odd. Eventually, we learn why the film pays so much attention to him. While visiting his senile mother in a nursing home, he’s shot by the IRA.

Up to that point, “Hunger” has only shown violence committed by the British, but this scene shows what they fear. McQueen dwells on the image of the guard’s mother covered in her son’s blood. With scenes like these, there’s no need for speech to explicitly condemn the violence committed by the IRA.

There’s an enormous amount of ambition concealed within “Hunger.” However, much of its freshness stems from McQueen’s distance from narrative cinema. He and co-writer Enda Walsh have created a script that follows no logic but that demanded by this particular set of stories. I can’t imagine many other filmmakers creating a riveting set piece out of 22 minutes of conversation, killing off Lohan so abruptly, or leaving Gillen and Campbell behind halfway through in order to focus on Sands.

As a director, McQueen is equally original, often opting for close-ups from bizarre angles. His final third alternates between the unpleasant spectacle of Sands wasting away and lyrical hallucinations. “Hunger” travels through the depths of brutality and abjection to come out the other side and make an urgent case for respecting the Other.

In 20 years, perhaps an American director will make an equivalent film set in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay.