Already justly celebrated everywhere, Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” is a historical scald, a chillingly powerful portrait of state violence, a serious import about authentic political rebellion that frankly contemplates the psyches of both the oppressed and the victimizers, and one of last year’s best films by any measure. But how to write about it so that it seems like the electromagnetic experience it is, without making it sound like just another in a long line of recent elliptical art films?
Honestly, efforts to evoke McQueen’s idiosyncratic choices make them sound not so idiosyncratic at all, more or less in the wheelhouse of “Ballast,” “Still Life,” “Silent Light,” “Gomorrah,” “The Headless Woman,” “Three Monkeys,” “Lorna’s Silence,” “Tulpan,” “The Sun,” “Import/Export,” and even genre films like “The Broken,” “Vinyan,” “Grace” and “Revanche.” Which makes “Hunger” sound, gulp, derivative, which it simply ain’t.
All we need to do, I think, is stop defining all of these films by what they aren’t. From the first landings of Kiarostami in the late ’80s, and Hou and Tsai and Tarr in the ’90s, and the subsequent influx of neo-realist enigmatists like the Dardennes, Dumont, Denis, Lodge Kerrigan and, most vitally, Jia Zhangke, these rarefied movies have been categorized largely by the orthodox movie ingredients they lack — exposition, omniscience, narrative transparency, familiar structure, loads of dialogue. Tough as it may seem, these movies should be extolled to a lay audience for their own richness, not for their resistance to showbiz reflexes.
I wouldn’t want to suggest that it’s a unified global style (not any more or less than the New Wave antics that circled the Earth in the ’60s), but insofar as it has roots in Antonioni’s rocky soil, it’s also a new vibe, one that prioritizes rawness of experience over clarity, silence over explanations, impressionistic impact over plot. Ellipses are only a means to their own discombobulating end. Can we call this Impressionism? (Cinema’s had expressionisms and modernisms and abstractionisms, but never an Impressionism.) Should we label it at all? Why not?
McQueen’s movie is a masterpiece of the movement — chronicling the life of the IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison in 1981 that led to the hunger strike led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), “Hunger” is a harrowing ordeal broken up so you’re never able to anticipate how the violence and the timeline will present themselves. The details are practically odiferous, but the form of the movie is a model of cause-effect political cinema — it’s divided to three distinct sections, and the first, in which the guards brutalize the prisoners inside and out and the prisoners respond with acts of defiance that mostly entail shit and piss, is practically a movie onto itself. Then Sands, whom we’ve met only briefly, sits down with a Belfast priest (Liam Cunningham) over cigarettes and for nearly a solid half-hour (including an initial single take that lasts over 16 minutes) discusses his plans for the hunger strike. Then the strike is underway, and we see in a dreamy but distressing montage Sands waste away to a bedsore-ridden skeleton, before simply shutting down.
It may seem sparse as narrative, but not while you’re watching it, and in terms of “content,” McQueen’s film bursts with political fire, implied backstory and conviction born out of suffering and persecution. The toll taken on the human body in the Maze is serious, and perhaps the most and the least you could say about the film as an experience is that it compels you to consider the reality outside of it and investigate the knotted politics of Irish-British warfare for yourself. “Hunger” is nothing if not a movie in which every frame is meant. If our tendency as jaded cinephiles is to sniff out the bullshit in whatever we’re watching — an occupation that doesn’t interest most moviegoers, who seem to like swallowing said bullshit in large, fluorescent heaps — then McQueen’s movie comes out smelling like roses.