Welcome to Framed, a new column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time. To get a feel for things, you can check out last week's introductory post to this column where I discussed Duncan Jones' Moon.
Steve McQueen's Hunger is a work of staggering beauty -- which sounds odd, considering it's a true story about Irish Republican Bobby Sands' (Michael Fassbender) hunger strike at the Maze Prison in 1981. It arose over the Irish detainees' desire to be recognized as political prisoners and not common criminals -- therefore not being forced to wear prison-issued uniforms or engage in other activities that regular inmates were required to take part in. It is a brutal, heartbreaking film that finds one magnificent image after another in places where you'd least expect them. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt have infused the movie with some incredibly striking visuals -- images just as powerful as the subject matter itself.
When compiling a list of potential stills for this entry of Framed, I had over thirty possible choices. Any one of them would have been worth writing about, but I narrowed it down to this single image (spoilers ahead).
The shot can be found at the 17:52 mark of Hunger on Netflix Watch Instantly. In this scene, prisoner Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) has played with a sluggish fly climbing over the broken grille covering his cell window, and has now stuck his hand through. It is, at first glance, a straightforward shot -- but the complexity of not only the individual frame but the rest of this scene make it stand out prominently in a film with no shortage of breathtaking images.
This shot is pulled from a much larger sequence -- one that finds Davey being brought to the Maze and placed into a cell straight out of a nightmare. As part of their protest, the prisoners have refused to wear clothes or bathe. Davey's cellmate is a wild looking man named Gerry (Liam McMahon) who's already smeared feces all over the walls and floor, and has collected a pile of rotting food in the corner. Maggots writhe amongst the filth as Davey stands by, suitably shocked.
The cell is almost an entity in itself. It's an environment that shapes the men trapped inside of it -- a microcosm where life's cycles play out in a regimented fashion. Life in prison is about repetition, a never ending loop of routine. This is symbolized on the wall, where Gerry has crafted an elaborately drawn spiral made out of feces, which is also something of a symbolic representation of the Maze itself ("There where it smells of sh*t, it smells of being. Man could just as well not have shat, not have opened the anal pouch, but he chose to sh*t, as he would have chosen to live, instead of consenting to live dead." -- Antonin Artaud). Davey becomes part of this cycle of metamorphosis -- one already in motion well before his arrival. The cell has transformed into a symbiotic community, where everything relies on the other in some strange way. Everything is equal inside those four walls -- from the maggots, to the flies, to Davey and Gerry themselves.
The still comes from a scene after Davey has been incarcerated for a few days. That he pays such profound attention to the fly is very telling. Davey's becoming acclimated to his new environment. A free man wouldn't pay attention to a fly for any other purpose than to kill it, but Davey doesn't because he's become something just like it. The fly was born in that cell, undoubtedly as a maggot sprung from the rotting food on the floor. It simultaneously represents Davey's incarceration and freedom as it flits about, trapped between metal, stone and glass. There's no real freedom on the other side of that grille -- regardless of what the bright light might lead you to believe. It's a moment of epiphany for the character, made all the more amazing because the message is conveyed without a single line of dialogue. The look of dawning realization on Davey's face in the moments immediately following seems to bear this out.
Another interesting element of this particular shot is found in the way the broken grille mirrors Davey's ribcage, which can be seen standing out slightly on his torso. When viewed this way, it appears as though the character is reaching inside of someone -- maybe even himself. As much as Hunger is a spiritual treatise, its emphasis on the corporeal is not lost either -- as part of the spiritual and religious themes, but separate from them as well -- where shots like this transform the body into its own landscape.
Technically, the scene is indicative of the rest of Hunger: flat, dreary colors, and muted lighting (most of the bright light tends to come from an external source). The film features many chiaroscuro elements, which are marked by strong contrasts between light and dark. We see it in this particular image, where there's a bright light on the right side of the frame, and dark shadows as you start to move toward the left. The illumination that swells in many of Hunger's frames is an interesting play on religious Renaissance or Baroque art -- the time period chiaroscuro thrived -- where this light was described as "divine." With the amount of religious iconography (several "pieta" scenes, a twist on the last supper during prayer service, and many others ... ) this seems like a deliberate decision on the filmmaker's part. The choice to shoot in a close-up, dissecting the body in various ways, is something McQueen and Bobbitt employ at several different points in the film. Because of this, the viewer is forced to read the body language of the characters and listen to the inflection of the dialogue to understand the emotional pitch of the sequence.
Director McQueen is an artist as well as a filmmaker -- something that comes through loud and clear in this film. There's a level of artistry in Hunger that we don't see often enough -- a genuine passion for imagery and visual storytelling. You can see it in this frame, one that appears so simplistic at first glance but is actually imbued with multiple levels of meaning. The real beauty of Hunger is the way it connects the technical craft of filmmaking with artistic inspiration and balances them perfectly in order to tell a compelling story. It's unfortunate that we don't see this marriage of art and craft achieved more often.