Established artists who've made midcareer leaps from gallery to movie house have not easily found their footing. Julian Schnabel's first feature was a flop; Robert Longo, David Salle, and Cindy Sherman never got any further than theirs. But British video artist Steve McQueen is the exception that proves the rule. Hunger — which won the prize for best first feature at Cannes last May — is a superbly balanced piece of work, addressing the passion of Irish Republican martyr Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in Belfast's Maze prison in 1981.
Perhaps because of McQueen's experience making video installations, Hunger is a compelling drama that is also a formalist triumph. The opening close-up of prisoners rhythmically banging their cups is held long enough to establish the movie as something percussive, deliberate, cool, and objectlike. McQueen is not just remarkably sensitive to duration, structure, and camera placement, he brings those issues to the forefront without mitigating the power of the situation being represented. In a way, the movie is also an installation — as intensely visceral as it is rigorously detached.
Early on, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is heard declaring that "there is no such thing as political murder, political bombing, or political violence — there is only criminal murder, bombing, and violence." This is not something McQueen chooses to push further. As its title suggests, Hunger is concerned with existential situations — imprisonment, punishment, faith in history (if not God). We never know the precise crimes the prisoners may have committed, and the jailers, too, are shown locked into their social roles. The emphasis is on procedure. Hunger is less a narrative than a cycle of stories or a series of routines: A new prisoner is brought in and stripped — ecce homo — then thrown into a literal shit box with a naked, hirsute madman who has apparently been decorating the cell walls with fecal mandalas.
This excremental environment is a vision of hell, but it, too, is a sort of installation — as well as a tribute to human ingenuity. The prisoners construct dams with mashed-up food to flood the corridor with urine; they pass messages through bodily orifices and cope with sensory deprivation by befriending flies. Having refused to wear the prison uniforms, the naked men suggest medieval hermits operating under obscure vows. The guards cope with disobedience by bashing the prisoners' heads against the walls, forcibly shearing their hair, and, at one point, making them crawl a gauntlet. The latter event is comparable in its brutality to the scourging sequence in The Passion of the Christ — a movie McQueen may have found useful, not least in its choreography of violent ensemble scenes.
Hunger, too, is essentially contemplative. (It can be bracketed with such other "experiential," post-Gibson passions as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days; United 93; and Day Night Day Night.) The takes are long; the camera is mainly static, moving only to map out some confined space. The emphasis is on the individual setup. The piss-drenched corridor is scrubbed in real time, with a guard working his way toward the viewer. The mode is materially Christian. The prisoners may use their Bibles for stationery or cigarette paper and exploit Mass as a meeting place, but Sands (Michael Fassbender), who appears only midway through the movie, is an explicitly religious martyr. Even the Brits are into self-mortification — one cop compulsively washes his hands in scalding water. One of the few scenes outside the Maze is a cold-blooded execution, resulting in a savage pietà, the victim face-down in his mother's blood-spattered lap.
The heart of the movie is an extraordinary 20-minute conversation between Sands and a tough, far from unsympathetic parish priest (Liam Cunningham), much of it shot in a single take. Sands has requested a meeting to inform the priest of his planned hunger strike. The hardboiled banter (playwright Enda Walsh's main chance to riff out) is suffused in bleak Irish humor. All argument is stymied, however, by the prisoner's stubborn determination to fast unto death; the priest's irate "Then fookin' life must mean nothin' to you" cues a close-up in which Sands answers with a story — or rather a long story within the story. It's not quite "The Grand Inquisitor," but I can't recall a movie with a more powerful priest-prisoner dialogue.
Hunger's harrowing final movement is informed not only by scripture, but also by a thousand years of religious art — with Thatcher, or at least her voice, brought back to play Pontius Pilate. The subject is now exclusively Sands — or rather the physical state of his emaciated body — as he lies on a prison-hospital cot covered with running sores and stigmata lesions. You can barely watch this living cadaver or the bedside food tray that is his constant temptation. I've seen Hunger three times, and with each screening, the spectacle of violence, suffering, and pain becomes more awful and more awe-inspiring.