Hunger, by British artist and director Steve McQueen and Irish writer Enda Walsh, is a graphically violent, deeply brooding film about IRA volunteer Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who led a hunger strike in 1981 aimed at improving conditions for IRA prisoners and regaining their status as political prisoners. Sands had been convicted of handgun possession and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. At the time, IRA prisoners were held together in one of several "H-Blocks," and began their protest with a "Blanket and No-Wash Protest" beginning in 1976.
The demands of the Irish prisoners during the hunger strikes seem, in retrospect, to be relatively minor: they sought to be recognized as political prisoners (prisoners of war), and as such to not be forced to wear prison uniforms, to not be forced to have work duty, to freely associate with other prisoners, and to be entitled to a weekly visit, parcel and letter.
The film opens with a man washing blood from his battered knuckles with echoes of Macbeth's "out damn'd spot, out I say!"; he has an air of grim determination about him as if he's resigned to whatever circumstances led to his state. The man, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), is a prison guard, and we'll learn soon enough how his hands were injured. Lohan stands in the snow, moodily smoking a cigarette; he gets ready for work at home, his wife watching worriedly as he checks under his car for a car bomb before leaving; he dresses in his uniform in the locker room and eats lunch alone, staunchly silent amidst the jovial camaraderie of his colleagues.
In the prison we meet Davey (Brian Milligan), a new prisoner being brought in, refusing to wear the prison uniform, and being labeled "non-cooperative." He's tossed into a cell with another IRA member -- a darkly claustrophobic hole his roommate has fingerpainted from floor to ceiling with smears of feces. And it's pretty much all downhill from there. We witness the brutality which Davey, his roommate Gerry (Liam McMahon), and the other residents of the IRA cellblock endure, but more than that, we witness their resiliency in the face of circumstances under which many of us would, no doubt, come to question both our sanity and our willingness to hold onto the values which put us there in the first place.
The core of the film, though, focuses on Sands, who led the hunger strike. Sands believes deeply and unquestioningly in the cause for which he's in prison and is willing to fight literally body and soul for the rights of the men being held for acts committed in the name of what he views as a war worth dying for. One of the film's strongest scenes is a lengthy dialog between Sands and a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham).
The priest is trying to convince Sands that his hunger strike is nothing but suicide; Sands passionately defends both his beliefs and his reasons for organizing the strike. He knows he is martyring himself with the strike; that, to him, is the point. He's not striking for himself, but for the cause in which he believes so strongly; for the inherent human dignity of his fellow IRA prisoners and the ultimate furthering of his cause, he is willing to die an ugly and painful, self-inflicted death.
In another powerful scene, prison guards line the hall of the IRA block decked out in full riot gear. They beat on their plastic shields with batons, creating a deafening roar; the prisoners are hauled out, one after another, and hurled into the row of guards, who beat them mercilessly as they are forced down the hallway for a body cavity check performed with all the violence of a gang rape.
It's a bit like an attack by a pack of vicious playground bullies going after helpless victims, one after another, and it's a relentlessly wrenching scene. Alone among the shouting guards gleefully beating their prisoners, one guard stands aside, sobbing amid the din of a breakdown of humanity; it's an evocative scene, a reminder that even within the horror of this grotesque warping of morality and human values, there is hope that not all will succumb to its sway.
There's not a bad performance or hokey line of dialog in the entire film, but Fassbender's performance in particular is nothing short of mesmerizing. He's an absolute revelation in this film, in both the scene with the priest and the latter third of the film, as he starves himself to death. Milligan and McMahon deliver strong performances as well, and Graham, who is tasked with conveying the weight of the moral self-judgment of the prison guard almost entirely in silence, is remarkable as well, in particular when we see him suddenly shift from the melancholy introspection of the earlier scenes to acts of shocking violence.
McQueen doesn't hold back in showing us the ugliness of the conditions in which the prisoners are living, and the animalistic way in which they are treated. This, he shows us, is a place where the only human dignity left you is that which you can hold onto inside. Beatings, forced bathings and body cavity checks are the tip of the iceberg here; these are conditions that would have PETA beating down the doors if animals were being treated this way, and the knowledge that these are human beings abusing other human beings in this way makes it almost unbearably difficult to watch at times. His direction is solid and unflinching from start to finish.
The film is graphically, brutally violent, but under the circumstances the violence isn't gratuitous, however difficult it may be to stomach. It's a cinema verite approach to viewing human dignity in the face of unimaginable indignities, a grim statement about what happens when differences of opinion in social and political matters lead men to treat other men with horrific cruelty.
Close camera shots within the prison cells evoke sweltering claustrophobia, and the unflinching lens of the camera brings us no relief from the brutality to which we are witnesses. This is a violent film, but there is masterful artistry at work as well. To be perfectly fair, McQueen and Walsh don't address the circumstances that led to these men being incarcerated, and the years of The Troubles in Northern Ireland were permeated with violence on both sides; Hunger, though, focuses on these particular men at this particular time, and it's a brilliant portrayal of a tragic moment in human history.