Saturday, July 11, 2009

Review: Hunger

Hunger (2009, Steve McQueen)

Newcomer Steve McQueen starts his directing career in full force with his character drama Hunger, a film about the last few weeks in the life of IRA resistance fighter Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) who, once incarcerated in the infamous Maze prison, chooses to go on a hunger strike which ultimately takes his life in 1981. As such, he becomes something of a martyr and a symbol to all those who support the Irish cause against the English.

With the exception of a few moments, the movie is set mostly within the confines of the prison, where the iron will of the detainees to resist the co-operation is set against the often repressive methods of guards. There isn’t a whole lot of gloss to this movie. I find that a bucket load of films set in prisons fail to make the location of the prison seem like an unpleasant place to be, which I assume must be the case. This doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a movie that doesn’t depict a prison as an uncompromising place. I happen to find Austin Powers and The Spy Who Shagged me a very funny movie for example. It’s just that when I think of an actual prison, I imagine it as an absolute hell hole. Granted, the circumstances of the story are particular to a specific time and place in Irish history which led to intense and coordinated animosity between the prisoners and the guards, but that in no ways changes to fact that this prison looks like the last place on Earth I’d want to be in. If writer/director Steve McQueen wanted to depict a depressing, uncomfortable look at the people on the inside and outside of the prison cells, he certainly succeeded. Some of the things the inmates do are really disgusting, such as using their food to stash away various items and to draw on the walls of their cells. The catch is that the food goes bad and in certain shots the viewer can notice that it is now infested with buggers such as maggots and the like. They also make sure to simultaneously poor their urine under the doors and into the hallways of the prison just to annoy the guards and janitors. Just typing about that provided a slight shiver down my spine. As for the guards, they aren’t happy campers either. They face this imprisoned opposition and their antics on a daily basis. Each group has grown to despise the other. That hate explodes with the occasional beatings suffered by the inmates at the hands of infuriated guards and their clubs. The emotional as well as psychological toil this takes on some of the guards can be too much to bare at times, as is seen during one the orgy beatings when the camera pans away from the action to reveal one guard lying against the wall shedding tears. If at that moment the viewer hasn’t clued in that within these walls normal human behaviours and interactions can be deformed beyond recognition, it’s a lost cause. It’s a place where, regardless of which side one is on, their mental and emotional well being will tested to the limit. For that reason the movie is very difficult to digest at times, but it’s also difficult not to admire McQueen’s desire to stick to the dark tone and not hide any of the brutality.

It is worth noting that the movie is actually divided into two halves more or less, the first of which introduces the audience to the nature of the prison and the condition of the inmates as well as the employees. We follow one guard in particular played by Stuart Graham. We see him as the frustrated and angry human being he has become (or always has been perhaps). There’s a depressing look about him, and why shouldn’t there be what with the terrible job and terrible political and social climate haunting his life? By the halfway mark of the movie, the story’s concentration shifts to Bobby Sands and his hunger strike. The scene introducing his character is one of the more impressive individual scenes, both for the writing and acting involved, that I’ve had the privilege of watching in the past few years. It’s been talked about endlessly, but I couldn’t possibly overlook it here. Sands has received a visitor, father Moran (Liam Cunningham), with whom he shares a cigarette. It is then and there that Sands reveals his intention of refusing food in protest against the treatment the Irish receive from the English. This approximately 17 minute scene is very solid for several reasons. For one, it is one of the rare moments in the film in which dialogue offers some insights into the psychology of the characters. Up until that point, whatever character explorations the viewer has been privy to (consisting mostly of the Stuart Graham guard) were accomplished visually, through actions, small ticks and behaviours. In a unique fashion, this extended dialogue sequence almost serves as a kind of interlude connecting two mostly dialogue-free halves of the same film. Interludes are usually when the talking and story take a breather for a moment or two, making this section of the film all the more interesting. There was something also very theatrical about the sequence, which was in contrast to the cinematic feel to the remainder of the movie. Only a few selective edits during these 17 minutes hint at anything cinematic. There’s just something about two actors having rehearsed this long, meaty conversation, filled with particular facial interactions and idiosyncratic ticks, that has an old fashioned, classical atmosphere about it. Not to mention that the conversation the two characters have is genuinely interesting, with father Moran attempting to persuade Sands not to follow through with this wasteful gesture, with all his arguments sadly falling on deaf ears. It’s a great example of solid writing and acting shining through as opposed to any visual qualities. Personally, I’m a big fan of writers and writing in general, so scenes like this one often get me very excited (much like the famous diner table conversation between Al Pacino and Robert de Niro in Heat). Both actors sell the scene wonderfully.
Recommending Hunger is somewhat dicey. For my movie tastes, it’s a solid, well constructed film. It goes for gritty realism while doing so in a cinematically satisfying manner (cinematography, editing, acting, etc). McQueen has made a very well shot film, and while many of the things we actually see are often cringe inducing, there’s little doubt that he handles the tone aptly. Still, it stands to reason that Hunger won’t be just anyone’s cup of tea. It’s dark material and nothing is sugar coated. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the darker film’s I’ve seen in the past couple year, and it has a lot to do with what I wrote earlier in this review: I don’t like the idea of prisons. They creep me out and the one in Hunger feels like Hell on Earth. That’s a very personal reaction of course, and so not everyone might get that visceral reaction out of it. There isn’t much of a plot happening however. It does feel a bit like a series of scenes strung together (admirably, mind you) depicting depressing, sad situations. Warning to the faint of heart, you may not enjoy the Hunger experience. Nonetheless, the movie is memorable for its brutality and the grim depiction of the antagonistic prisoner-guard relationships. The movie refuses to ever become didactic, which is a relief (that’s not saying that message movies aren’t any good however). If you’re in the mood for something bleak, go right ahead…

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