03 December 2010

Hunger (2008)


Hunger Took My Breath Away
By Kristin Battestella


I warned you I was on a Michael Fassbender bender.  Despite hearing all the praise for his 2008 drama Hunger, I was reluctant to watch this tale of Bobby Sands and the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike.  I’ve had The Machinist in my Instant Watch queue for months, always skipping over and over it again in favor of something else.  I simply don’t like films with sickly, gaunt, skinny, skeletal people.  It’s too Holocaust, too Concentration Camp photo to me.  I don’t get squeamish over many things, but skeletal people are the one thing that gets me every time.  Thus, I left Hunger buried in my Netflix queue and then took it out of my DVD list all together.  It came up in my recommendations across the site, and then tempted me silently from my Roku box listings.  Even at the video store, its quiet cover taunted and beckoned me!  Finally, one night out of the blue when I had plenty of other things to do (too much really) I gave in- sans my usual popcorn. Eating popcorn during a movie about a hunger strike somehow just didn’t seem right. 



After fellow Irish prisoners Davey (Brian Milligan) and Gerry (Liam McMahon) endure brutal abuses and inhumane treatments at the Maze Prison, IRA Officer Bobby Sands (Fassbender) decides to end the prisoners’ blanket and no-wash strike efforts in favor of a hunger strike.  Despite concerns from his parents (Helen Madden and Des McAleer) and Father Dominic Moran‘s (Liam Cunningham) attempts to convince Sands that this statement will be equally unsuccessful, Sands proceeds.  In hopes that his sacrifice will bring about political status for his compatriots, Sands refuses food and medical treatment for 66 days as his body slowly wastes away.


Oh. My. God. Debut director Steve McQueen (No not that Steve McQueen) starts slowly, but certainly makes up for any unusual pacing with co writer’s Enda Walsh (Disco Pigs, Chatroom) disturbing but somehow lovely and non-political narrative.  Fast-paced Americans might become hung up on the simmering opening and silent moving shots of seemingly insignificant objects, but these scenes quietly establish the tone, history, and character backgrounds needed to proceed with the tale at hand.  Hunger is not about the British and Irish politics or history and issues of the time.  I know it seems strange to say that this is not a political movie, but McQueen steadfastly puts a face to The Troubles.  Hunger is about a person- a human being at the forefront of suffering.  Naturally, this is not a picture for the faint of heart.  We begin with naked humiliations, ill uses of excrement, objects in bodily orifices, and if that doesn’t shock you, Hunger gets heavier from there.  Americans might be even more surprised that there isn’t a lot of dialogue early on -actually, outside of one major sequence, there isn’t much talking in Hunger at all. Being a visual artist first and foremost, McQueen lets his imagery tell the tale- and yet the supposedly posh guards and dirty anonymous prisoners aren’t all they seem. 


I don’t really want to give too much away, as it helps to go into Hunger relatively cold, with only the basics of the history at hand.  If you have any preconceived notions about the Hunger Strike, leave them at the opening credits.  Were Hunger an American film- every fricking thing would have been over stylized with all kinds of orchestration and supposedly avante garde metaphors and symbolism from the likes of Tom Cruise.  Hollywood would have the audience shell shocked with graphic blood, effects, and prison torture ala Saw. While Hunger is certainly graphic, none of that head bashing overabundance and flash is needed here.  Everything is paired down- this film looks like it is emaciated and on strike against the glitzy system.  Hunger looks realistically bleak, dirty, nasty, and (excuse the pun) bare bones.  With plenty of unpleasant but no less intimate prison nudity, hardly any music, and mostly all diegetic sounds, a viewer might almost think this is a documentary, not art.


 Well, Michael Fassbender knows how to make an onscreen entrance- and this is certainly not a glamorous introduction.  Although he as Sands is the star of the film, Fassbender doesn’t appear until a half hour into the movie.  In fact, he probably is only in the ninety-minute picture for a little more than half the time, and again, most of that time is without any dialogue.  After the lovely 22-minute conversation halfway through the film, Fassbender returns to the silence for the conclusion of the picture. I don’t want to be a super gushy girl, but this sequence is just amazing.  All that’s said is said- in some cases without actually being said at all- and then it’s back to more silent visuals echoing the words spoken and unspoken.  McQueen’s visuals and Fassbender’s character balance each other wonderfully, making Hunger a visually based character statement.  All the underscored camera stylings strengthen Sands’ onscreen happenings.  What are his real motivations for the strike?  Which is it, suicide or murder?  Fassbender does not make the answer easy- Sands isn’t played as a martyr or messianic historical figure at all thanks to Fassy’s keeping the humanity real.  The man really starved himself for 10 weeks for just a measly 15 minutes of movie!  Stelios this is not. Fassbender perfectly captures the mundane and monotony of starvation and the silent bodily torment of waiting to die while yet clinging to the hope that your action will sound like the voice in the wilderness. 


It’s a good thing Fassbender did this film in relatively obscurity, before he truly hits the mainstream next year as Magneto in X-Men: First Class.  Its fitting that we don’t think along the lines of ‘Oh, its just Russell Crowe in prison!’ Blockbuster stars don’t make these kinds of edgy and risky independent films- honestly they can’t since they are so recognizable.  However, major stars also have deep enough pockets that they don’t have to bleed art and make films like Hunger.  Fassbender- like Bobby Sands- silently states that he has to do this.  After toiling on both sides of the Atlantic for ten years and despite notable success in 300, perhaps breakout and/or meaty film offers just weren’t coming his way.  Would he have been done with acting if not for this film? You can clearly see in some of his earlier work that Fassbender has skill and loves to do what he does best: act. However, one gets the impression that if Hunger had not been such a hit on the festival circuit and led to scene stealing roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and the fallen western Jonah Hex, years from now we might have wondered what happened to Michael Fassbender.  He had to go to some dark places to make this movie, and we get to see it whether we like it or not.  Up until a few months ago, I really didn’t know who this damn guy was. However, I am continually impressed by his transformative skills onscreen. In interviews discussing Hunger, you can’t help but like his confident and articulate but fun loving German-Irish self; yet in the film, his eyes are so sad and utterly captivating.  I can absolutely see why Fassbender has something like eight films lined up in the next two years, and I hope more audiences find him and Hunger. After seeing this picture, you most definitely come away with the feeling that Michael Fassbender can now do whatever the fuck he wants and we should simply buckle up and enjoy the ride.  


Though Fassbender steals the show here- this is about him after all- Hunger is not a solo piece.  Stuart Graham (The Clinic, Michael Collins) is delightfully stoic as Officer Lohan.  We meet his wife and mother; see his difficulty at what he does. It doesn’t make it easy to discern who is right or wrong in Hunger.  Is Lohan a bad person because he has such an ugly job?  Are the wonderfully unashamed Brian Milligan (Leap Year) and Liam McMahon (Snatch, The Tudors) bad because they are on the wrong side of the prison bars?  But of course Liam Cunningham’s (Attila, Dog Soldiers, The Wind that Shakes the Barley) part of the piece is also exceptional.  Halfway through Hunger, Father Moran gives the viewer an onscreen representative asking why Sands is doing what he’s doing.   It’s wonderfully ironic to have an angry, pissy, chain smoking and embittered priest brought in to sit opposite Sands and discuss matters of the soul.  Again, for actors who business is all about how they look and what they say, Hunger is excellent at the simplicity of what we see and don’t outright hear.  Were technicalities with timing and limited release dates, campaigning finances, and the stubbornness of the Academy the only things that kept this picture and its performers from Oscar contention?  Tsk, tsk.


In spite all the visual disturbia- Hunger has in many ways re-enforced my discomfort with those sickly, gaunt, skinny, skeletal depictions- I seriously enjoyed this film.  There is, somehow, a strange viewer joy in the silence of a well-told tale.  I’ve been begging some of these fast paced, herky jerky, effects laden films to put away the CGI hysteria and return to the simplicity of pointing a camera at your performers and letting them do their thang.  The 17 minute unbroken two-shot here is exactly what I mean.  Effects and other technical dressing are just tools in the toolbox, not the entire workshop! No special effects are needed for this wonderfully witty, serious, sad, and natural conversation. It’s not a boring sequence. The actors do move within the frame- and we have to pay attention to the hidden ticks, vocal inflections, heck even the smoking of the cigarettes in order to understand the full meaning of what’s being said.  Hunger does not insult its audience’s intelligence. I simply adore the seemingly off the cuff but utterly great and understated discussion about Sands smoking The Book of Lamentations.  Many years ago, I did a thesis and taught a course on this poetic chronicle of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile in Babylon. While some may assume there’s just a joke in that a good Catholic would of course only smoke a stuffy little Old Testament lament, it’s really an ingenious hint aligning the IRA’s troubles to Biblical mourning and resilience.  This is perhaps as political as Hunger gets- and for all our fast-paced American ways; you might blink and miss the philosophical and spiritual smarts here.  


All this haunting imagery and analysis on the best and worst of what humanity can do each other, and yet I dare say Hunger is a beautiful film.  As I mentioned earlier, it is, of course, by no means easy to watch. This isn’t the kind of film you go through in slow motion for glimpses of Fassy’s wang- so get that thought out of your head now ladies.  Hunger is best viewed for its quiet, strike-esque performances, shock, and awe.  Afterwards, however, feel free to clear your mind with a pleasant, more mindless viewing of Hex and 300.  On some level, you have to try to forget about Hunger just to ease your brain.  Fortunately, after numerous festival awards, praises, and international acclaim, Hunger has found its way stateside with a Criterion DVD release and other streaming and rental options.  For some, however, the thick Irish language will be tough to understand without subtitles.  Hunger is a film you probably have to watch more than once to pick up every nuance of visual and performance- yet it’s not really a film you can forget, quite the opposite in fact.  You want to give Hunger another go, but at the same time, you don’t know if you can go through it again.  Against my better judgment, I picked up a rental copy of Hunger at my local Blockbuster’s store closing sale.  At $8 compared to the $35 blu-ray, it was an offer I could not refuse.  Of course, my little cheapy copy doesn’t have the behind the scenes features or McQueen’s commentary like the major release, and there’s a lot of other promotional trailers instead, but I digress.  It was a little unsettling making these screen captures, too- freeze framing to snap such skeletal wonders!


Suffice to say, despite its simple title, Hunger is not a simple movie.  It’s mode of operation is simple, yes- we have the subdued visuals and performance needed with none of the flare.  However, its realistic, human portrayal rings loud and clear- the only thing missing from Hunger is a wider audience.  If you’ve read my reviews previously, you know I don’t give this kind of praise to just anyone, and I wouldn’t be on a Fassbender binge without good reason.  If you’re not yet a fan, see Hunger and you soon will be.  


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