Directed by Steve McQueen
You can split Hunger up into three clean sections, or acts. While almost every film follows a three act structure, Hunger is broken up not so much by story progression but rather by three different short films.
The whole story follows a series of prisoner protests in 1981 Ireland, and though our protagonist Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) never leaves the prison, we start outside of the prison. The first man we meet is a prison guard, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), as he gets his day started before heading to work. He seems like a nice enough man at first, but he’s incredibly paranoid, and he doesn’t interact much with anyone at the prison. Later we see him beating up prisoners and cutting up his knuckles. It is the portrait of a man who doesn’t realize he’s bad or doesn’t care.
The film transitions from Lohan to a new prisoner, Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) who acts as our audience surrogate into the prison. Through his eyes we see the existing protests of his cell mate and, presumably, all the other prisoners. One of them is the “no wash,” protest in which they, predictably, don’t clean themselves or shave and cut their hair. The cell is covered in shit, and despite some apprehension, Davey quickly gets onboard with the plan.
This section of the film is incredibly quiet. There a bunch of close ups and a focus on the details, the sounds, the cracks, etc. It’s very visceral and even more brutal. We observe the ways the prisoners live with relative silence, forcing us to really pay attention and try to figure out what’s going on. The prisoners are eventually forcibly bathed and shaved, and this is when we meet Bobby Sands.
The story pivots to show Sands, a leader within the prison community. The brutality continues after Sands leads another small protest that results in a number of prisoners getting horribly beaten, including Sands himself. He then states his intention to go on a hunger strike, and the movie jumps into a 17 or so minute conversation (almost all in one unbroken take) between Sands and a priest who tries to talk him out of it. The theme of the movie is all in this conversation.
It’s the only time we really get to see what drives Sands as the two men vocalize their opposing strategies, life values and Sands tells the man a story about a time he put a kid out of his misery by drowning him. The conversation makes it clear that Sands isn’t bluffing. This is a mission that he will gladly die for.
The rest of this film jumps into the effects of Sands’ hunger strike, on him, not on the political landscape. Though his goal is to reach well beyond the prison, the film continues to focus only on the effects this has on him. It’s striking to see how quickly the film jumps forward to Sands already knocking on death’s door. He’s shrunken, pale and his body is covered in soars.
He never relents, though, and eventually he dies after 66 days. The film ends with him running by a creek as a boy, like the story he told the priest about when he put the crippled kid in the stream out of his misery. As Bobby takes his final breaths, he remembers this day as a kid, and though we don’t see the boy he killed, his memory of himself seems to recognize his own death (not to make light of the situation, but this scene reminded me of a very critical scene in the last season of Game of Thrones involving a character named Hodor).
Director Steve McQueen makes some peculiar choices with this film, but they all work in one way or another. He likes his long takes, details and showing us glimpses of characters we might not otherwise notice. What’s the importance of starting the film with the prison guard? The only other time we see him away from the prison is when he is assassinated in the film’s most brutal sequence. Lohan visits his unresponsive mother at an assisted living facility, and then he is shot in the back of the head, the blood drenching his mother who still shows no response.
I’m still trying to show what this all suggests other than the idea that none of this is pretty, which it’s not. It’s a war, as Sands tells the priest, and people die in war. There is also a shot of a prison guard who abstains from the prison beatdowns and instead cries around a corner while Sands is badly abused. This is a shot that felt unnecessary or at the very least a little too forced into the story. There were a couple shots of the guards’ eyes which implied that this isn’t something they’d like to be doing, and the shot of the man crying felt like little too much, but I get the idea.
I don’t think I’ll figure this film out for a while. It’s well done, and it was incredibly gripping, but I still can’t quite understand why McQueen broke down the film’s structure the way he did. In any other film we would start with Bobby Sands, and we might even see what he’s like outside of prison, as a civilian. I think the decision not to show this is meant to illustrate how far removed these prisoners were from the real world. Their fight was about regaining their political status which had been stripped away. We never see them out in society because the war is about the distance between them and society.
So maybe that’s why we start with Lohan, not in the prison but in the real world. We have to see that there is a line of separation between the guards and the prisoners. In other words, it’s what the prisoners are fighting to get back. Except that the scene of Lohan in his suburban neighborhood isn’t idyllic at all. It’s very tainted, in fact, by his paranoid and possibly some guilt (hopefully). It shows that he’s unable to withdraw completely from what he has to do at the prison (beatings) and implies that the prisoners’ various protests are working in some small way.
Without this sequence, we would have no view of the outside world and thus no understanding of the impact of the prisoners’ protests. Similarly, when Sands dies there is no clear indication that his hunger strike worked except that we see the end titles which tell us how the rest of the events unfolded. Several other men underwent the hunger strike and died before change was enacted, but the point is that it worked. Maybe McQueen would have wanted to leave it open ended with the question of whether it worked unanswered. This is a real story, however, so we know it worked (well, someone more well-read than me would’ve known it worked), meaning that kind of ending is impossible. If you then strip away the opening sequence following Lohan and the final text informing us how it worked, we would have no indication that any of this worked. There is a clear separation between Sands and the audience, because he can’t tell if his protest is working all the way up until his death. The fact that the protest worked is what gives us as the audience satisfaction, but there is no satisfaction for Sands other than knowing that he’s doing the right thing. This is set up by the story he tells the priest, about killing the crippled boy and knowing that he did the right thing.
It would have been pretty ballsy for McQueen to just end the movie with Sands’ death and then refuse to tell us what happened next. Sands’ death is very quiet, and that makes it more haunting because for a moment it does kind of feel like he would fade away quietly, meaning it was all for naught.
There are a few extremely long takes in this film. The most obvious one is the 17+ minute conversation, but another is a lonely shot down the prison hallway in which a guard mops up urine that the prisoners have dumped from their cells in another protest. He dumps a cleaning liquid on the urine puddles, and then he mops it up, and we watch the whole thing. To me this scene is meant to show how the protests are working because they force a response, even if just a small one. They are not being ignored even if it might feel like they are.