Once upon a better time, there were audiences who looked for hardscrabble movies that pushed them out of their comfort zones into uncharted territory. Hunger is such a movie. It’s an artistic triumph that asks us to enter the H blocks of Northern Ireland’s Maze prison, circa 1981, and watch IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) lead a hunger strike that will leave him skeletal and dead at the age of 27.
The facts of Sands’ final weeks are well known, as is his intent: to have IRA inmates recognized as political prisoners entitled to rights under the rules of war. PM Maggie Thatcher, heard only as a disembodied voice, isn’t having any of that. Director Steve McQueen (no relation to the late star of Bullitt) is not interested in a biopic trip down bad-memory lane. McQueen, British, black and living in Amsterdam, is a prize-winning experimental artist in video and film scoring a potent and provocative debut in features. His intent is to create a film you can see, touch, feel and smell.
That Hunger surely is. Working from a script he wrote with Irish playwright Enda Walsh, McQueen begins with a prison guard (a vivid Stuart Graham) leaving home after washing his bruised, bleeding knuckles. The guard grabs a smoke, checks his car for hidden explosives and heads off to the H blocks, where he’ll pick up more scars during the strip-searches and beatings. The allusions to GuantÃ¡namo and Abu Ghraib are purely intentional. We see prisoners naked or in blankets, refusing to wear uniforms. In protest, they use their own shit to smear the walls, letting piss flow under the doors of cells filled with flies and maggots. The movie is a sensory wallop, McQueen’s way of showing the body itself as an arsenal, arguably the last weapon any of us have to fight back.
Politics intrude in a long debate between Sands and a priest, Father Dominic Moran (the superb Liam Cunningham). Otherwise, the film is a series of haunting, scarring images, including the protracted process of Sands wasting away. Fassbender is magnificent, finding the soul of a character stripped of all resources except those that define him as a man. A few critics have accused the film of glamorizing Sands as a terrorist. Not so. Shockingly immediate and philosophically reflective, Hunger is an indelibly moving tribute to what makes us human.