Ever since Inglourious Basterds hit theaters last August,
Hunger hypnotically processes the story of Bobby Sands (Fassbender) and the 1981 hunger strike he famously lead in Ireland's Maze Prison, and so it's understandable why it didn't become the must-see blockbuster event of 2008 (the fact that its poster features a large swirl of human feces probably didn't help - a bold publicity choice The Dark Knight opted against only at the last minute). But when I recently had the chance to speak with one of the writers of an upcoming film in which Fassbender is starring, and the guy - despite having created a role for Fassbender and knowing him personally - hadn't even heard of Hunger, I was a bit taken aback. See, the 33 year-old German-born Irishman is destined to be a major Hollywood player before long (he's playing someone named "Magneto" in next summer's X-Men: First Class), but even before he starred in unavoidable event films he routinely proved that he's not just an actor to watch, but also one to actively follow. Fassbender is going to be good in everything he does from here on out, but he's already been great several times over, and he's helped to make a few great films in the process. And with Centurion opening theatrically tomorrow, it's time to be reminded that you should be paying attention.
One of the most impressive things about Fassbender's performance in Hunger is that it was really his first significant film role. Sure, he appeared in 300 after rising through the ranks of British television, but all the men in that film sort of blend together into a sea of hairless abs and risible dialogue, so not even someone of Fassbender's talents was given much of a chance to make an impression. Zack Snyder wouldn't be the last director to criminally underutilize the actor, but the gig was enough to get Fassbender some traction and working for a higher echelon of filmmakers, as his next role was in Francois Ozon's first English-language film, Angel. Angel was unfortunately also Francois Ozon's first terrible English-language film, but Fassbender's turn as a tortured artist must have been enough to convince Steve McQueen of the actor's ability, and Fassbender wasted little time convincing the director of his conviction.
Hunger is a portrait of a hunger strike more than a biopic of Bobby Sands - Fassbender doesn't appear for quite a while. When he does show up, he's just another violent, demoralized face in the crowd, and so Fassbender is forced to earn the viewer's attention and allegiance in a way not entirely dissimilar from how Sands had to distinguish himself from his fellow Republican prisoners in order to become a rallying figurehead capable of restoring the political status that had been stripped from them. And under McQueen's immaculate supervision, it doesn't take Fassbender long to do just that. He's introduced as a purely physical presence, spitting and punching and bleeding. He's an unfettered mass of helpless rage, and the process by which he gives voice to his resolve is mesmerizing - to watch Fassbender's Bobby Sands meet with his priest (in a breathtaking scene home to the film's only bits of real dialogue) and then commit to his self-imposed emaciation is to watch an actor destroy (or molt from) the body that nabbed him that first Hollywood job as a cut Spartan warrior. Actors have starved themselves for roles ever since they started giving out Oscars for doing so (good luck, 50 Cent!), but in portraying the most storied hunger striker since Gandhi, Fassbender evidenced that his body is every bit as expressive as his (oh so handsome) face.
And it's Fassbener's posture that sticks with me most about his Lt. Archie Hicox in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. He's charming as hell as the debonair spy, whose language skills are an uncanny match for Fassbender's own upbringing - but it's the rigidly hunched way he holds himself during his meeting with Michael Meyers' General Fenech that best displays the physicality of his talent and his preternatural sense of what the camera is seeing. All it takes is one unyielding pose to launch Hicox into the firmament of Tarantino's most memorable characters - one arm firmly tucked behind his back, he's immediately announced as a stoic soldier, as witty and suave as he is lethal. Fassbender knows how to pose for the camera in just the right way to be taken seriously and lend his character consequence, but also to be understood as a purely cinematic creature that plays by the rules of a world in which Tarantino is God. And the mustache he rocks early in the film delivers a more nuanced performance than most young actors are capable of delivering with their entire body.
Oh, right, Michael Fassbender. So then in Andrea Arnold's exquisite Fish Tank he uses that same kinetic control as a weapon of seduction. It's a performance that perfectly straddles the line between human and serpentine, and it's largely responsible for how smoothly that film is able to segue from a harsh yet pleasant domestic drama to something entirely more harrowing. And it's further proof that Fassbender is well on his way towards earning a "Their Best Role" feature of his own down the line, even if he might have to endure a few more stints of being under-valued in order to get there (e.g. Centurion, in which Neil Marshall fights a losing battle to make his star more generic at every turn. Ridiculous quantities of CG blood ensue). This is probably also the part of the article where I should talk about his turn as Burke in Jonah Hex, but that would require me to have seen Jonah Hex, and that just didn't happen. Whatever, that film has more great actors than it does minutes - these things happen. We live in a world where Al Pacino starred in a movie called S1mone, so forgiveness and appreciation sort of go hand-in-hand. And Fassy (that's what his friends call him) - if you're reading this - you probably shouldn't work with Joel Schumacher again (Blood Creek), especially not in films that involve characters with names like "Meth Freak Girlfriend."
But careers are built on the back of bad choices (just go with it) and we've clearly got a great actor on our hands here. What's more, because of Fassbender's recent success and his certain future as a genuine movie star, he's also an important actor. It's increasingly rare that someone of such talent ascends to the A-list - soon you're not going to be able to avoid Fassbender, so do yourself a favor and pay attention to him while it's actually still a choice. He's an actor that doesn't just deserve to be noticed, but also appreciated.