Movie Review: 'Hunger'

Hunger Directed by Steve McQueen 2008, 96 min.

Before Belfast has awakened in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” — which won a Golden Camera Award for best first feature at Cannes and a Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival — we see Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham) come out of his house. He is inspecting his car, while his wife looks at him from the window. She looks worn and uneasy. It’s only when he looks at the underbody of the car that we get a sense of alarm.

The street is eerily still; manicured hedges and modest houses seem like a painting with no human life to stir up chaos.

When we see Ray again he has changed into his prison guard uniform. He is soaking his hand at a sink, and we’re startled by the blood from his knuckles.

Then we see Davey Gillan (Brian Milligan) being processed into the infamous Maze Prison. It is 1981 in Northern Ireland.

Davey refuses his convict uniform. His undressing sparks humiliation by the prison staff. He’s handed a blanket which he wraps around himself and he is taken to a cell. He looks like a teenager; he’s a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The camera focuses on a hallway where the IRA prisoners are held. We can see four or five cell doors. No light gets in the cell. There is only a small slot in the cell door to pass a food tray through.

Liquid trickles out from a cell, then from another. The liquid starts merging until there is a little stream. It doesn’t register right away that this is prisoners’ urine. When it does it’s sickening. Then Davey’s cellmate uses one cell wall like a canvas to paint on. But he is painting with his own feces. It looks like an abstract painting that we might see in an art museum.

When a group of British soldiers make their weekly visit to Maze Prison, the naked political prisoners are made to run a gauntlet. The soldiers have clear plastic shields and 4-foot clubs. It’s a bloodbath and an eery reminder that this is more than 20 years before Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu-Ghraib and secret “black sites” in the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld torture network.

The film eventually reveals what’s behind prison guard Ray Lohan’s earlier hand-washing scene.

And it introduces us to prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Without fanfare he decides he will start a hunger strike in an effort to stop the descent into madness. That madness seems to be the aim of the British rulers and their paramilitary partners in the form of the Ulster Defense League (UDL).

Bobby sends word to the IRA leadership of his intention to use the hunger strike to force the English to recognize the rights of the political prisoners.

As the movie nears closing Sands, probably weighting less than a 100 pounds, is lifted out of a bathtub as though he was a toothpick. The camera focuses on a guard’s knuckles, which are tattooed with the letters UDL.

This movie is almost silent. Can we call this a biopic about Bobby Sands? What have we learned from him? Can we compare it to Paul Greenway’s “Bloody Sunday”? Or Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley? Do we always have to have a didactic movie biography such as “Milk,” “Malcolm X,” and “Gandhi”? Steve McQueen has mastered a way to communicate with our senses. It’s a physically arresting experience and it’s done without language. What a bold way to tell a story. McQueen is working with sledgehammers on our soul.

Just weeks before our Nov. 4, 2008, elections, the word “Republican” was a stamped image in our head of seven years and 20 weeks of Bush’s madness. So what should we do when we hear of Irish Republicans? Why did the policy of the British Empire not allow three counties to be part of the rest of the Republic of Ireland?

This director trusts people watching his movie to be hungry for more.