Hunger (2009): A compelling, haunting and devastating first feature!
“I have my belief. And in all its simplicity that is the most powerful thing.”
Steve McQuen’s debut feature film, Hunger is not only one of the most ballsy and terrifying film I’ve ever seen, its also a film that doesn’t follow the conventional Hollywood script writing structure, with no character arc or even the exciting eventful third act happen. And in spite of these unconventionality, the film laminates and haunts the soul out of you. It crushes your instincts and leaves you hanging like a pendulum which can only look back and see that no ones following.
Hunger is about being heard. The story basically revolves around Bobby Sanders, even though it kick starts from Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) enjoying the first meal of his day after washing off his wounds. But before that we hear people raging around, beating and thumping their respective plates, supporting the cause for a change. The film desperately changes from being mute to immensely loud. For the first 30 odd minutes, the film consequently moves through these disarranged claustrophobic scenes of complete silence followed by insane rage. When the snow-flakes or the filthy walls of the prison cell don’t talk, McQueen resorts to brutality; not because he wishes his audiences to walk-away or hide their faces as they cringe their way through it, but because it creates an emotionally relevant wound into their psyche even when the political status or the war of the Irish Republican Army has nothing to do with them.
As I said before, Hunger chronicles the Republican movement where Bobby Sanders led a group of revolutionaries to a hunger strike where he, along with a few other, fought against the rights that were inflicted upon them, rights which were in no sense of the word ‘right’ in any way. The film doesn’t necessarily show us what Bobby Sanders’s sacrifice led upon the British ways; neither does it over sympathies with what could be the most horrifying death in cinema history. It just leads us through a set of enigmatic, devastating and almost impossible to watch inhumane prison conditions that these set of individuals had to face.
McQueen basically deals with three layers in his film, firstly he takes us into the life of Raymond Lohan, the prison guard who washes off his wounds when he is done beating down the ‘political prisoners’ to pulp. He doesn’t enjoy it, as we see him going off in the snowy corridors to sip onto his cigarette, he notices a mouse trying to make his way through him, but it stops and takes the other way around. That specific moment shows his concern with himself. He checks his cars for unscrupulous handling and is always on the edge when he has to force Bobby to with-hold his ‘no wash’ policy. Raymond is not necessarily a likeable character, nor does he help the narrative in any major way, but McQueen’s main aim here is not to show the revolution, he basically wants the audience to be compelled by this repelling Prison life. To an extent where the law forces don’t get to meet their mothers with a bunch of flowers being at peace.
Secondly, Hunger talks us through two other Prisoners, namely Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) & Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) who refuse to wear the prison clothes assigned to them, nor do they wish to take bath to support their refusal. We see McQueen take up the aspect of psychical trauma in his third act where Bobby Sander’s body completely disintegrates. But he prepares you for all that through these two characters. Davey & Gerry are young people, while we see Davey receiving a picture from his wife so that he could masturbate to fulfill his physical needs, Gerry wishes to listen to the atrocities of the world through a radio. I can’t have the image of human excreta on the walls that seem to signify a trap, not only inside their heads but inside themselves.
And thirdly, and most importantly, Hunger talks about Bobby Sanders (Michael Fassbender) and his possibly hopeless endeavor to make a stand for what he believed was the right thing to do. In what could possibly be one of the greatest scenes in cinema history, we see Bobby have a long chat with the priest. They both talk about Bobby’s decision of leading a hunger strike until death has him being taken away. We see the two sides of the coin, the priest tells him about the various consequences that can be seen through his visibly stupid step to do so, whilst Bobby being adamant on what he thinks to be the right thing to do. The priest and Bobby ponder over a series of cigarettes, which are thankfully not rolled out of the Bible, as to what God and human have in common, why there can’t be a silver lining when freedom is at bay and why sacrifice is the only option to put ones word into action.
Interestingly, McQuen’s film, that has one of the most striking cinematography in films having a restricted premise, the claustrophobia dictates where the camera should be. In a very interesting scene, a unit of armed officials are sent in to beat the prisoners off their secret exchange. We see one of the them, getting emotionally manifested by the brutality that’s going on. Scenes like these and a few others which contrast the peace and violence are typically cased to leave a lasting impression. The other interesting thing that struck out of the ordinary was the production design of the Maze Prison. The film was shot in Belfast and the way the Art director has manged to replicate the prison into the sports complex where it was actually shot is astounding to imagine.
Hunger is not an easy watch. There are at least a dozen times when you can’t help but grimace. But then again, it has some of the most striking, visually compelling cinematic elements that uplift it into a realm of nerve wrecking havoc, one that can’t be ignored.