British conceptual artist Steve McQueen’s first feature film, Hunger, often plays more like an art project than a drama, which works both to its benefit and to its detriment, depending on what you’re looking to take away from it. Although Hunger is a fact-based story about IRA member Bobby Sands’ 66-day hunger strike while being held in a British prison, for much of the movie McQueen holds back from explaining anything about his characters, and Sands (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t even show up until about half an hour in.
Before then, McQueen depicts, with virtually no dialogue, the lives of two of Sands’ fellow prisoners and a guard whose efforts to just do his job are constantly disrupted by being a potential target for IRA violence. A few title cards set up the situation, but otherwise we’re merely dropped into the middle of a complex situation with only our emotions to guide us. The prisoners refuse to dress or bathe, cover the walls of their cells with feces and pour urine into the hallways every night. They’re protesting in order to gain status as political prisoners, but without understanding why, all we can see is petulant criminals behaving like spoiled children, and average workers living in fear for their lives.
This first of three distinct sections is the ugliest and most rigidly formal, with McQueen’s shot compositions so fastidious that even the shit-smeared walls look like gallery installations. Still, by presenting such nasty material in an almost pretty way, the director succeeds in shaking up our preconceptions of what a film about this subject matter should look like. In the second section, Sands sits down for a long conversation with a priest, laying out in detail why he’s about to embark on a protest that he knows will likely kill him. After 45 minutes of ambiguity, this talky sequence (shot mostly in one long, uninterrupted two-shot) is a little jarring, but it provides the right amount of context for the final stretch, which depicts (again, with almost no dialogue) Sands’ descent into starvation and death.
Hunger is less a political statement than an exploration of human debasement and cruelty, and McQueen does a good job of showing the situation as horrible for all involved. Like most effective art, his film provokes a visceral reaction, but audiences recoiling in disgust may miss the social commentary behind it.
Available on DVD February 16.