Hunger (2008)

Hunger (2008)

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Liam Cunningham

Runtime: 95 minutes

FilmScore: 10/10

Steve McQueen seemed to come from nowhere. With no directorial credits except for a short film only a minute long, he made a film called Hunger in 2008; a film that I saw exactly one month ago to this day, and have only just given a second viewing. Hunger is more than just a film; it is a bold statement, and a directorial magnum opus for McQueen, who achieved recent success with last year’s Shame.

Hunger is based on the true story of an Irish republican named Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender in a performance that transcends the normal expectation for even a great cinematic experience. Fassbender, quite possibly the best actor working today, absolutely throws himself into the role of Sands, risking his physical health to portray a man whose admirable rebellion sees him refusing to wash or eat. In the film’s most famous sequence, a 20+ minute conversation with a priest (including one unbroken take lasting sixteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds), he discusses his personal strength and motivation, as the film turns from a brutal physical battle into a scarring emotional one.

Sands is not introduced as the film’s central character until around half an hour into Hunger, but the mysterious and enigmatic opening scenes are just as compelling, lucid and frighteningly eerie; in fact, it may be this questionable opening sequence that is the film’s strongest section. That’s not to say it ever loses its strength, because it doesn’t; but this is a film that is just as interesting and emotionally evocative even when it hasn’t yet made its point clear, and is still shrouded in mystery. The second act of the film, with its 23 minute conversation, is like a relieving break from the violence and horror of the first; yet Sands’ troubles and the beginning scars of his physical breakdown are still hauntingly present, and his dialogue, unshakably coarse, is rough and given strength by the scenes preceding it.

When Fassbender is not flooring the audience with his physical transformation and emotional strength (and even while he is), McQueen is stunning us with his exceptional, auteurist direction. His long takes are harrowing and sharply executed; the film’s horrific violence is viscerally shot so that scarring prison beatings feel genuinely painful to watch, and McQueen’s regular use of both static and handheld camera angles allows him to adjust the mood appropriately from cold and lifeless to painfully moving. There is one shot I absolutely love that most directors wouldn’t have included – and if they did, it wouldn’t be held for as long as McQueen holds it. It is a static camera shot of a janitor sweeping water down a prison hallway, and it lasts a long time. I like shots like these; after scenes of intense observation and powerful detail, they give us time to fully soak in what has happened. This particular scene gives us time to do that, but is also hypnotic and disturbing to watch. After the brutal, bloody violence and horror prisoners are subjected to, there is the cleaning up, a silent but equally long and important event. This hallway shot may be my favourite shot in the movie.

By the time we reach its end, Hunger resonates in our minds and remains firmly planted there. It never ceases to be a truly exhilarating, chilling experience. Each moment, even during the slow in-between scenes that seem to be there simply to enhance the mood, is incredibly poignant and devastating. This is a consistently depressing and revelatory film about a time in history that is perhaps never considered as seriously as it should be. The 1993 film In the Name of the Father saw Daniel Day-Lewis play a man wrongly accused of an IRA bombing whose life in prison was as harsh and brutal as you could imagine; that was a great film, but Hunger is even better; few movies have us barely able to tear our eyes away from someone doing something as simple as sweeping a hallway. Hunger finds turmoil and terror in the simplest of events, painting a vivid portrait of the hell of prison life, and the power and importance of revolt, especially if one man’s daring and influential self-destruction can be learned from, appreciated, and remembered.

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Posted on July 2, 2012, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Wonderful, wonderful review. I’m so glad you loved this film as much as I do. Seriously, I reckon this movie is one of the finest cinematic achievements from last decade. Everything about it is flawless. The fact that Michael Fassbender’s work went unrecognized is criminal. I’ve never seen anything like that before!

    • Fassbender definitely should’ve gotten more recognition for this film. He put his life on the line for it. The images of him towards the end, thin and starving, are horrifying beyond description.

  2. Everything you say about this film is perfect. Hunger had me ‘hypnotised’ and the violence had me flinching, for lack of a better word. It truly was, like you say, almost physically painful to watch. Those long, slow moments let everything sink in. Fassbender was brilliant as always, but this may be my favourite performance of his (that or Shame. Don’t make me choose!)

    • It’s impossible to pick between this and Shame for the best Fassbender performance. While I think this is a better film, I might lean towards Shame as having the better acting performance. However, the gruelling weight loss Fassbender underwent for Hunger is truly terrifying to think about, so I admire him for taking on such a role.

  3. Sooooo pleased you liked this one matey. McQueen is a great artist and a great film maker too. The Running the Gauntlet scene still gives me shivers now!!

  4. Fantastic review! This is really brutal and shocking movie and I loved opening scenes – they really established the tone for the rest of the movie. McQueen’s direction was really exceptional here.

  5. I’m surprised you were able to watch the film again so soon after seeing it the first time. While I loved the film, I would really struggle watching it again. I really look forward for more from McQueen, he’s such a unique film maker.

  6. Great review indeed. I’m so glad I got the Criterion DVD for this film. It’s truly one-of-a-kind and after seeing Shame, McQueen is clearly a filmmaker to watch as I’m highly anticipating his next film.

  7. I seen this when it was released and as much as I loved it, I know I had more to fully appreciate. I just couldn’t bring myself to view it again. Now that a few years have passed and Shame being one of my favourites from last year, I’m ready for another viewing. I’ll be purchasing this very soon. Cheers Tyler.

  8. Alex Withrow

    Fantastic review. McQueen – the man that came from nowhere and blew us all away. The first time I saw this movie marks one of the best film watching experiences I’ve ever had. I had no idea what it was, and I was completely enthralled. You’ve done it’s power justice, my friend.

  9. I need to see this, especially since i liked Shame

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