Monday, March 30, 2009

McQueen's Martyr

by Brandon Colvin

Acclaimed British video artist Steve McQueen’s debut feature film, Hunger, is nothing less than a formal tour de force. Set in the tense political climate of 1981 Northern Ireland, Hunger employs a distinctly partitioned structure to tell the brutal story of IRA leader Bobby Sands’ (Michael Fassbender) famous hunger strike. Sands’ orchestrated protest was enacted to earn Republican prisoners political – instead of merely criminal – status in the face of Margaret Thatcher’s rigid perspective that no crime was justifiably “political,” only criminal. After Sands and nine others starved themselves to death, the IRA was bolstered – Sands was even elected to Parliament in the midst of his strike – but the result of Sands’ actions are not the focus of McQueen’s film. Instead, Hunger is about the moral determination and mental discipline required to turn one’s body into a political weapon; it is a film about process and duration, and, fittingly, it is a film in which the means, rather than the ends, tell the story.

Most broadly, Hunger is a triptych, structured as follows: a nauseating introduction to the harsh prison conditions and fanatical resolve of the Republican prisoners; a lengthy conversation in which Sands explains the necessity of the hunger strike to the discouraging, yet sympathetic, Father Moran (Liam Cunningham); and the somber wasting away of Sands’ starved body. Elegant and direct, McQueen’s film mirrors the martyr narrative of Christ. The film begins with a guard, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) – the guilt-ridden Pontius Pilate – following him to the prison where new prisoners are being interred. A young, non-conforming Republican, Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), enters into his punishment cell, finding the feces-covered walls, feral faces, emaciated nude bodies, and filthy desperation that Sands, Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon), and the other protestors live in. As they accept the burden of their cause and assimilate into the protesting prison culture, the prisoners are beaten repeatedly, and forced to run a vicious gauntlet of baton-wielding guards dressed in riot gear. They take lashes and abuse analogous to that of Christ. Their march through the hall of bloodthirsty officers recalls the crucifix-carrying march of Christ to Golgotha. They bear the cross of their sacrifice.

In the film’s middle segment, Sands faces what may be viewed as the last temptation. The film’s centerpiece, a 20-minute conversation between Sands and Father Moran (filmed in two still shots), contains some of the most biting, aggressive, fantastic dialogue in any film. Following the Hunger’s nearly wordless first third and prefacing its equally-dialogue-free concluding segment, this center section is an explosion of thoughts, ideas, and frustrations on both sides of the argument. Father Moran believes the strike may not be necessary, pointlessly destroying the lives of numerous young Irish men. Sands resolutely disagrees and voices his desire for freedom using an eloquent anecdote from his childhood. Nevertheless, Father Moran gives him every opportunity to escape his self-determined fate. Ironically, he plays the role of Satan – tempting Sands to weaken his resolve and forego his role as a potential savior and leader of his movement. Like Christ, Sands does not give in. Following the conversation comes a stunning single shot in real-time of the prison custodian mopping up the urine that the protesting prisoners ritually flood into the long cellblock corridor. Juxtaposed with Sands’ declaration of principles and immediately preceding his isolated starvation, the shot connotes a cleansing effect – a result of his self-destructive action. One cannot help but be reminded of the washing away of sin and damnation brought by Christ’s crucifixion: whereas Christ attempted to spiritually liberate souls, Sands attempts to politically liberate his people.

The film’s final third adopts a light, ethereal palette of hospital whites as Sands enters into his medically supervised final weeks. A sense of purity and asceticism is imbued by the plain, pale tones into every frame depicting Sands’ harrowing starvation. Elliptical and grueling, the film’s protracted culmination shows Sands enduring visits from his family and denying the steady flow of food brought to him, all the while only half-conscious as a result of his physical weakness. This is the slow death on the cross. The clean sheets and applied ointments recall the careful treatment of Christ’s body after death. Once Sands finally shirks off the confines of life, he too is resurrected – his strike being taken up by the next Republican in line, and so on, and so on, resurrected over and over again in the faith of his followers. And while I’m not a religious man, I must say that Sands’ unwavering endurance is the stuff belief is made of. Hunger, then, plays like a ritual, complete with rigorous form, meditative pacing, and repetitious renewal. In his debut film, Steve McQueen has crafted a spiritual, ethical, and political prayer, one of unflinching intensity and striking power.


James Hansen said...

I'm with you on what the film is saying and doing, but, based on my one viewing, I have reservations about the last third, which you address here and what I pointed out in my NYFF review. The film is so intent on the means, the why rather than the how/ends, that the last third's harsh focus on the suffering threw me off. It still seems like an odd criticism (it is a film about hunger strikes that is intensely visual and in the hell would it not show the hunger strike?) but the last third seems too resolute and, oddly enough, meaningless after the convo with the priest and the incredible shot of mopping up the urine and excrement down the hallway. I still remember that moment really vividly six months later.

Its hard to call it a misstep, but I don't think the last third adds anything. We know how far Sands will go. I don't think anyone thinks that he's not going to go all the way with it, especially after the 20-minute convo. So, why the last third? I almost mean that rhetorically, as I know the answer to the question and section I'm criticizing, but it just didn't deepen the message for me on first viewing. Maybe I'll change my mind when I see it again though... Either way, its damn good, but it stopped short of greatness for me.

Anonymous said...

Brandon, top notch review. This film was absolutely mesmerizing and I can't wait to watch it again. Speaking of which...(begins gratuitous plug) If you find yourself in the Athens, OH area near the end of April, we will be showing Hunger at the Athens International Film Festival. Other titles tentatively scheduled to be screened outside of comp. are:
Serbis, Rough Aunties, It Came from Kuchar, Time and the City, Departures, Wendy and Lucy, 24 Hour City, Food Inc., One Day (this might be the same thing as 24 Hour City, I couldn't figure it out on imdb), and Beaches of Agnes. Come one! Come all! (ends plug)