Look Back in Abstract: Steve McQueen's Hunger

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The many accolades for British artist Steve McQueen and his elliptic debut Hunger line up like happy-to-harp witnesses to a history lesson: The Camera d’Or (or Best First Feature) at Cannes; a Golden Hugo Award here, a BAFTA there; and, for just one more round of applause, Best Picture of 2008 according to go-to film glossy Sight and Sound .

But all the laudatory fuss that surrounds this muscular, viscera-shifting film about Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), the IRA hunger strike leader who passed away in 1981 after 66 days of starvation, doesn’t prepare you for the jarring, sensory ordeal in store — a steady, force-fed diet of bare-knuckled sights and bumped-up sounds. There’s plenty of martyr-or-maniac discourse to parse after the fade to black, but the ascetic 96-minute march towards emaciation and emancipation is spellbinding, uneasy, and — yes — essential viewing.

McQueen leaves the back stories to the books — after all, there’s no proper shorthand for the Troubles that embroiled Northern Ireland for so many years (note: after over a decade of peace in the region, recent murders have only reignited the anxiety). Instead, the Turner Prize-winning visual artist fleshes out “what it was like to see, hear, smell, and touch in the H-block.” He drops the viewer ear-first into the incarcerated ruckus as a prison protest with dishware clangs to a tribal din off-screen. It’s 1981: The notorious H-blocks in Belfast’s Maze Prison (christened as such for its shape rather than its hellish circumstances) are chock-full of “terrorists” or non-conforming Irish Republicans — their crimes are never indicated, only their sentences — who demand that the Margaret Thatcher-hatched British administration label them as political prisoners and their militant party as legitimate. In this spirit, the inmates let their prides literally hang out, rejecting common prisoners’ outfits (or “enemy uniforms”) in favor of threadbare blankets. To compound their corporeal protest, they also refuse to shave and bathe.

The dedicated compatriots up their so-called “Blanket” and “No-Wash” protests by pouring urine under their cell doors, slathering feces into swirling frescoes on cell walls, and piling maggot-ridden rations on their cell floors. To pass messages, pieces of Bible paper (when not used for cigarettes) are shoved into body cavities; female visitors use the same delivery method, even resorting to their children’s clothes. It’s gross and engrossing to watch these painstakingly detailed acts of defiance. Throughout this first, near-silent section, McQueen’s camera alights and stays in the cubicle-sized cell that houses two young agitators, surveying their bare, boxed-in area with slow pans and long, mesmeric takes. By continually paying cinematographic care to routine and its — let’s just say — niceties, McQueen mires the viewer in the Maze’s extreme physical conditions, making them nearly feel 3-D in their tactile rendering. He’s captured that austere “whisper of the blood and the pleading of the bone marrow” — to lift a telling line from Norwegian Nobel Prize-winner Knut Hamsun and his own last-gasp opus titled Hunger.

Of course, we haven’t even touched upon the brutal beatings that occur like clockwork, courtesy of the prison officers. Throughout the film’s first hour, the sound of baton-smacked flesh and struggling bodies echo through the chambers. Often, these bouts of cruel and unusual punishment appear as an institutional corrective to the protests — payback for putting up with the prisoners’ shit, so to speak. For instance: After the prisoners smash up some tidy new rooms and reject the “clown” clothes proffered by the British powers-that-be, a line of riot police enter the confines, barbarically drum on their shields, and proceed to hammer on the naked prisoners as they scramble through the highly medieval gauntlet. You feel obliged to test your own bones and intestines just to make sure that they’re in their proper, upright position after such a savage takeoff into de Sade territory.

Yet, McQueen also understands that this violence is circuitous, and he mitigates what might be perceived as a pro-IRA agenda by showing the other side’s entrapment in the same vicious system. The first character to appear onscreen happens to be the middle-aged prison officer Ray (Stuart Graham). We watch as he ceremoniously submerges his bruised knuckles in scalding water, eats a breakfast of fried eggs and sausages, waves a see-you-later to his worried wife, and, most importantly, checks his car’s underside for IRA bombs. Later, a cold-blooded assassination also seems more premeditated than many of the prison beat downs (16 guards were murdered during the Maze protests). Meanwhile, the disembodied voice of Margaret Thatcher drones on: “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence.”

Alas, the ideological fault line in Thatcher’s statement is as treacherous as San Andreas, and although McQueen’s dialogue-driven second stanza defines Bobby Sands’ political motives for his imminent starvation, it is by no means the definitive answer. He and co-screenwriter Irish playwright Enda Walsh just present the schismatic sides as history dictates. The film’s knockout scene — a single, static, 17-minute take that elevates the discourse above the abutting muck — features an uncompromising Sands and an initially sympathetic parish priest (Liam Cunningham) as they wax morally and intellectually on the IRA, martyrdom, rhetoric as opposed to action, and yet another hunger strike, which Sand believes will “keep his beliefs pure.” Whereas an earlier prison hunger strike held the same, all-for-one mentality as oarsmen rowing in rhythm, Sands’ new, one-for-all program obeys a follow-the-leader logic: He’ll starve himself until he dies, whereupon the next man steps into the void. The priest disagrees with this suicidal tactic, but, to Sands, sacrificing the body in the name of the body politic is a final act of free will — as well as a sensational propaganda ploy. As the closing captions tell, it would take seven months and ten skeletal corpses (counting Sands’) for the British government to finally yield to the inmates’ demands — though they never officially acknowledged their “political status.”

The film’s final, and most horrifying, section lingers in Sands’ hospital room as he slowly loses weight and heads toward the history books. His Passion-like resolve never wanes even as his sinews and skin atrophy beyond recognition, with each sickening sore and lesion pored over as if it was in a Petri dish. To make a long struggle short, his decomposition is particularly unglamorous, handled by McQueen with a dry, prosaic eye up to the end — the beautiful, ochre-colored flashback that appears with the onset of delirium seems superfluous (and nearly sentimental). Although most of Hunger‘s religious representations aren’t orthodox (the priest smokes and swears, Mass becomes an occasion for inmates to spread a different Word), there remains a distinctly Catholic resonance to Sands’ cause-induced suffering and passing, particularly when you recall his earlier insistence that “Jesus Christ had a backbone.”

Throughout this extraordinary torment, the young German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender turns in a bravura performance that warrants the critical flag-waving. Depicting a controversial character who emerges onscreen with an invisible chalk outline set around him, he invests each of his demanding scenes (whether physically or philosophically) with a rough-and-tumble vitality and authenticity — for the shrinking role, he actually lost 40 pounds under medical supervision. But the mammoth’s share of the acclaim belongs in the assured hands of McQueen, who has crafted one of the most challenging, cinegenic and penetrating debuts in recent memory.