It's the little things that mean a lot in "Hunger." It's the mundane instances that appear to speak volumes in this film, more than anything that's ever said (which you'll find in this movie is not that much): A man poking a hand out of the window and letting a fly buzz around his fingers. The reddened bruises on another man's hand as he goes outside for a smoke while snowflakes descend from the sky. The stunned look on a man's face at the Expressionist work of art on a wall, which he unfortunately has to spray-wash off because it was done entirely in fecal matter.
That's how things went down in Maze Prison, the Northern Ireland penitentiary where the movie takes place. Set in 1981, during that period of ethnopolitical conflict known as "The Troubles," "Hunger"never looks away at the men who served time in this prison, most of them members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). They were men who were perfectly willing to live in their own filth to take a stand.
The movie begins rather randomly, first focusing on a prison guard (Stuart Graham) as he gets ready for work, eats breakfast, checks under his car for bombs -- you know, the usual stuff. Then, the story shifts to Davey (Brian Milligan), a newly imprisoned IRA member who passes on prison gear (as with most of the IRA men who were imprisoned) and gets holed up with another nude, blanketed cellmate (Liam McMahon), who has already painted the cell in a lovely shade of brown.
Without so much as a lengthy conversation, they both immerse themselves in the "nonwash protest," aimed to re-establish their political status by securing the demands they had, already in progress on the cellblock.
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About 30 minutes in, we meet the true star of the show, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who gets dragged out of his cell by guards and gets a haircut and a bath brutally forced upon him. Sands, the IRA's former Officer Commanding in the prison, would soon begin the Irish hunger strike where he went without food for 66 days -- and several other men would follow his lead.
For about an hour, "Hunger" is the most unflinching, visceral, almost unsettlingly graphic look at political imprisonment I've ever seen.
One could only shudder to think what was it like for these men as they were surrounded in their own waste, just to make sure their demands were being taken seriously by Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister at the time. (Thatcher's disembodied voice looms throughout the movie, making public statements and undermining the IRA's mission to be heard.)
Co-writer/director Steve McQueen (no relation to the "Bullitt" guy) doesn't hit us with the details of what got these men in the slammer. But he does show the utter inhumanity these men went through -- inhumanity that no man should have to go through, even for a political cause. And yet, these men did it, for they saw themselves as freedom fighters who couldn't be swayed from their mission. This is evidenced by a soon-to-be-legendary 17-minute, one-take scene where Sands gets a visit from his priest (the Liam Neeson-sounding Liam Cunningham), who tries to persuade him to back out of the strike. (I'm assuming this dialogue-heavy scene comes mostly from co-writer and award-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh).
For two-thirds of this movie, you're down with "Hunger" all the way. That's why it's surprisingly disappointing when Sands' actual hunger strike begins in the final act, taking him away from the blunt, brutal reality of the cellblock and his brothers in the struggle and into a hospital bed. Although it's unnerving to see Fassbender starve himself for his craft to play a man who starved himself for his cause, the cold, dry and ultimately clichéd climax (yes, he starts hallucinating -- and sees a younger version of himself in the room) is an unfortunate, woebegone conclusion to a quietly incendiary film.
It pains me to say this, but "Hunger" left me wanting more.