It's fascinating that Steve McQueen, a Turner Prize-winning black artist born and bred in a land that defines itself by "country first" (and is having its own faith shaken at a time when many young Brits are defining themselves as "Muslim first") would create a film that subtly uncovers his homeland's hypocrisy. For the British believe in "country first" only when that country is England, which is why Irish Republican nationalism (Ireland's own version of "country first") historically has been so offensive, thus brutally repressed. In contrast, America has always been a land of identity politics, defining our groups as "African-American," "Mexican-American," "Jewish-American," the "American" always second in importance. But in England, it's always "Anglo" first (McQueen is not "Caribbean-British" or "African-English"), an offensive veil that the Provisional IRA fought to rip away.
Since McQueen is first and foremost a prestigious visual artist, I expected the images in Hunger, his Camera d'Or-nabbing debut feature about the infamous hunger strike staged at Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in 1981 after leader Bobby Sands and his fellow inmates' special status as political prisoners was revoked, to be stunning. What I wasn't prepared for was an equally assured, mind-blowing sound design and stage-worthy script. The term "art film" has been batted around, posted like a sticky note to so many movies since the time of its conception that it's hard to type the two words together with a straight face. And yet Hunger, with all its visual, sonic and editing elements flowing together in harmony like a five-star, six-course meal, exemplifies the phrase. McQueen's film is a nuanced masterpiece that never flaunts its artistry, but uses it humbly to serve the all-important story.
From the earth-shattering opening—a rattling of pots and pans in a protest rally until the noise becomes deafening, nearly unbearable, even as the close-ups of the items being banged resemble nothing but pieces in an automated factory assembly line—to the sudden blackness, to credits over silence, McQueen has stated his unorthodox intentions. Hunger will be a roller coaster ride through the atmosphere of Maze Prison, not a straightforward study from a history book. So hang onto your seats.
Or leave them. Several people walked out of the screening I attended, and I venture to guess McQueen's unflinching, cerebrally stylized violence reminiscent of Abel Ferrara, paired with sound effects as rich and colorful as the near-religious image of snowflakes landing on a prison guard's bloody-knuckled hand, proved to be too much for delicate stomachs. Personally, I was even more impressed with McQueen's ability to wield silence like a painter instinctively aware of which portions of the canvas to leave blank.
The act of waiting becomes a suspense device. Like the soldiers serving in Iraq who know their lives are on the line if a town is uncannily quiet, prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham as the man whose hands are forever scabbed or dripping blood in metaphor of the British empire itself) is unnerved when he leaves his house to drive off to work. His neighborhood seems eerily quiet as the camera whips from one end of the utterly still street to the other. Immediately he drops to the ground to check for a car bomb, his wife peeking out from behind a virgin-white curtain, terrified to look as he turns the key in the ignition. Silence is always the enemy—the calm before the storm.
From a long shot of puddles of urine streaming together like tributaries from under doors of prison cells to collect in the hallway to the medium shots of "blanket" and "no-wash" protest prisoners wrapped in dirty wool covers, modern-day cavemen dwelling in filth, McQueen's use of perspective is Goya, not Godard. His camera slips and slides, twists right along with the squirming naked body of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender of 300, the lead in Ozon's Angel—and the next Daniel Day-Lewis if he keeps this up) as he's finally forcibly cleaned up (slammed into a bathtub to be scrubbed by Raymond Lohan's industrial broom) and then bloodied again, the irony as thick as the red flowing onto the floor. And then just when you want off this not so amusing ride (though not a second before) comes a cut that doesn't hurt—to perfectly timed silence, the image of Raymond leaning against a wall, sucking in nicotine in the snow.
Of course, momentary respites are few and far between. Even church services become not-so-sacred ground as Father Dominic Moran, played by the wry and philosophical Liam Cunningham from Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, preaches to a roomful of unapologetic "terrorists," the din of covert activity drowning out his sermon. The swift note-passing, the small groups conspiring, gives way to a single spiritual moment as McQueen frames Brian Milligan's sleepy-eyed inmate Davey Gillen in still close-up, his sudden resemblance to storybook Jesus startling but unmistakable.
Like Bresson with Pickpocket, McQueen is interested in using Hunger to silently document the daily intricacies of committing a crime—in this case running a revolution from a prison cell. Visitors conceal contraband in orifices, prisoners smuggle "comms" (communications) between cells, which are then hidden again in orifices, passed back along to their loved ones in a nonstop underground chain. Every seemingly innocuous move masks a secret agenda—and a chance to be caught. McQueen's pacing is breathtaking (from absolute stillness to extreme ultra-violence and back), the torture methods used by the guards every bit as violent as the lethal inmates themselves, rendering Maze Prison one giant game of chicken versus egg with the occasional time out for a smoke (rolled from the pages of the Book of Lamentations if you're doing time). This is a game in which no one wins, in which the easy way out via death isn't even a goal, as the guards don't want to annihilate so much as deliver a message—that the Irish Republicans must never forget who is boss, which of course, historically, mirrors England's attitude toward Ireland itself.
The Brits themselves who take part in the ritual, gangbang billy-clubbing of prisoners can't help but be scarred for life. Even as McQueen shoots the beaten prisoners like martyrs, with poetic reverent images of slowly oozing blood, he won't hesitate to frame a split screen with ruthless violence on the left, a young guard unstoppably crying in a corner on the right. The ordinary "everydayness" of violence is astonishing: When one prison guard is gunned down execution style in front of his mum, that's just business as usual. It's Belfast after all.
"Putting my life on the line isn't the only thing I can do—it's the right thing," Sands tells Father Dom in my favorite scene of all, one worthy of a stage play (and no wonder, as McQueen shrewdly hired Irish playwright Enda Walsh to pen the script). In one long, 22-minute (!) take, a medium two-shot in which the priest and Sands have a heart-to-heart across a waiting room table before cutting to close-up as Sands continues the monologue, then back to the two-shot, is so smooth, the editing seams completely hidden, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Sands's monologue about being with a group of Belfast boys on a cross-country running trip and discovering a foal dying in a river, of sitting around listening to his teammates debate what to do while the horse suffered until he couldn't take it anymore and forced the foal's head under water to drown it, explains his reasoning behind leading a hunger strike with the eloquence of Nelson Mandela.
"I will not stand by and do nothing," Sands responds to Father Dom, who thinks he's "deluded" if he believes a hunger strike will make the Brits capitulate. It's a lovely and thoroughly believable scene made all the more lovely by the fact that McQueen simply frames and walks away, leaving room on the canvas for these two incredibly talented actors to relish in the sophisticated dialogue.
Then once again, there's that long shot of a prison guard "sweeping" the puddles of urine down the deserted hallway, toward the camera, coming closer and closer to us, classically framed yet as frigid and threatening as Kubrick's hall shots in The Shining. The slow dolly over the subsequently scrubbed floor while Thatcher's voice introduces the hunger strike in voiceover is equally as cold. And as Bobby Sands finally lays dying, the camera floating above him, the cut to black birds flying free among the trees, then back to Sands, all shot as if from that menacing roller coaster, one wonders if mankind stands a chance, if the political ride will never cease.