Director Steve McQueen’s second film, Shame, was one of the first movies that I discussed here. It was a fantastic, careful, and strongly emotional piece, and since seeing it, I’ve been meaning to watch McQueen’s feature film debut, Hunger. McQueen writes and directs, as he did on Shame. The film’s subject surrounds members of the IRA and their prison conditions. It’s far from being traditionally told, but like Shame, it’s intensely powerful in everything that it shows.
The film, at different times, follows three different people. There’s a prison officer, and two separate prisoners. Our movement between the three sections is indiscriminatory. The film in no way acknowledges the difference, nor does it try to explain to us that we are leaving characters behind to begin anew. This isn’t necessarily confusing, but there aren’t necessarily obvious conclusions to the different sections (some certainly have necessary ending points, but that by no means makes them natural). That said, we take to these new characters easily. They are continually more interesting and more outspoken. We learn more about each person that we stay with.
The issue comes in the lack of narrative. Hunger in a fairly obstinate manner refuses to explain anything. We receive no context. We don’t know who these people are outside of these moments. Heck, we don’t even know about the IRA outside of our prior knowledge. The film specifically does this as a means of both focusing on its own events and taking no particular side in the ongoing protests. Unfortunately, that makes the film difficult to be grabbed by. We can follow well enough, but the stakes are undefined and meaningless.
What Hunger gives us is a portrayal of how nasty this whole event is, at least in these specific moments. It does this well, if not a little more obtusely than necessary. The prison guard checks beneath his car for a bomb before getting into it. Our first prisoner finds his cell walls smeared with feces by his cellmate. The guards treat them terribly. They are beaten, their cells are never cleaned. The final prisoner brings about the title - he starts a hunger strike, and we watch him deeply suffer as it goes on. McQueen shows us the orifices used to smuggle notes in and out of the prison, he shows us excrement running down the halls and maggots festering in the cells.
The visuals are not styled in any strong way, but the camera has a strong eye in its presentation. It is often moving gently and carefully among its subjects. At one point during the hunger strike, it swoops around as if in painful nausea. Most notably, there is a scene that comes halfway through the film that does not cut for near to twenty minutes, and immediately following it is an uncut shot for another several minutes. The long take is unmoving, staring in profile at a prisoner and a priest across from one another at a table. They have a long and natural discussion. The later shot has the prisoner telling a story. It’s fairly impressive, although the circumstances of the film take away from our interest.
Hunger seems to excel at everything that it wants to do. It portrays each of its subjects in a raw and objective manner. What happens to them is awful, as is the situation surrounding the events. As it is though, we really have no idea what the greater purpose is. There is no narrative here to speak of, not between the three stories nor within them. This makes the film difficult to follow or to find meaning in. There is an obvious meaning in the torture that these people experience, but we have no context to put this in. It’s too bad - Hunger is a fine display of McQueen’s talent, but it’s relentless obscuring of the broader picture hurts the piece rather than helps to make it more honest.