I would imagine that being locked in a tiny prison cell for years on end, with nothing but a blanket and piles of your own waste for company, makes a man very attuned to the small details of life. The sound a cigarette makes when you take a drag. The way snow melts when it lands on wet skin. Steve McQueen's impressive film "Hunger," which won the Camera D'or for Best First Feature at last year's Cannes Film Festival, understands this. In its best moments, it makes us understand it as well.
Above all, it is a film of moments. "Hunger" tells a story, but it tends to skip over the most dramatic parts; it has characters, but it spends long sections of the film observing them while they say and do very little. Small gestures take on larger importance; in a movie about a hunger strike, a guard dumping his napkin's crumbs on the floor becomes a powerful statement. Though the prisoners live in filthy conditions – as the film begins, the inmates are in the middle of a "no-wash" protest – McQueen's camera finds incredible, even beautiful things in their world: a guard sent to clean the shit-covered walls of the prisoners' cells, dressed in the sort of outfit they make men wear when they're entering nuclear reactors, has to remove the helmet from his costume to better appreciate a mesmerizing spiral pattern of crap before he hoses it out of existence.
McQueen's camerawork is both assured and poetic, but it's his use of sound that really sets this film apart. For the first and third portions of the film dialogue is almost completely nonexistence; some scenes are so quiet that the introduction of the tiniest noises raises a huge impact. The movie features shockingly brutal violence, unflinchingly grotesque depictions of bodily wounds and sores, and yet the single moment that unnerved me with the most precision is one that occurs off camera. A radio receiver has been smuggled into the prison and hidden inside a man's intestinal works. To retrieve it he has to sift through a pile of excrement. McQueen's camera focuses on another prisoner's face, but we can hear what's going on. I will never forget that sound.
The film recreates the conditions in the H-Blocks of Northern Ireland's Maze Prison of the early 1980s where incarcerated IRA members, led by a man named Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), undertake a Hunger Strike in order to protest the prisoners' lack of Special Category Status. The political underpinnings of the issue, the battles being waged beyond the walls of Maze Prison are left largely unexplored. McQueen isn't as much concerned with why Sands and the other inmates are striking but how; what the day-to-day realities of engaging in this sort of extreme protest are like. The men do not sit around debating; McQueen shows us a Sunday Mass where the priest yells to be heard over the din of a dozen men not praying or even debating the ramifications of their actions, but frantically planning and passing notes that have been smuggled into the jail by way of mouths, noses, and who only knows where else. Surely this must be how it was for the men of H-Blocks. They are locked away, cut off from the outside world. Their focus wasn't philosophy. It was pragmatism.
The one exception to the techniques established in the sequences described in the previous two paragraphs is an already famous 22-minute scene between Sands and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) who comes to visit him in prison. Sands reveals the plan for the Hunger Strike, the priest tries to convince him to change his mind. All of "Hunger" probably contains less edits in total than an average Hollywood blockbuster deploys over the course of a single action sequence but this scene pushes the long take aesthetic further, with its first 17 minutes captured in a single, static shot. The camera is placed at a distance from the two men, who sit in profile on opposite sides of the table, their faces obscured by the smoke from their cigarettes and the shadows cast by an off-screen window. McQueen's been training us all film to focus on the subtle interplay between image and sound but here the image becomes so static, it forces us to turn our full attention to the debate between the two men. This bold technique is undercut, though, by the actors' thick Irish accents and mumbling deliveries, a difficulty compounded by the sprinter's speed with which they plow through the scene.
It's also true that as clear a picture as he paints of the H-Blocks, McQueen doesn't give as vibrant a portrait of the men in it. Sands is the subject of the all-important dialogue scene and the picture's final third where Fassbender literally wastes away before our eyes, but he's barely in the film's first and longest chapter. Here, we spend most our time with a violent but contemplative guard (Stuart Graham) and a newly arrived prisoner (Brian Milligan). Including an inexperienced prisoner allows the audience to learn about Maze Prison as he does, but the fact that we never learn what happened to this character weakens the argument for his inclusion. Why not just follow Sands, to better understand his reality and his beliefs?
Maybe this is why "Hunger"'s first chapter is its most effective. Sands' discussion with his priest and his eventual hunger strike forces politics into a situation McQueen previously kept strictly apolitical. But in the early sequences you are totally immersed into the reality of Maze Prison for guard and inmate alike. There is very little context, because on the inside, prison has no context. There is just horror. And maybe, sometimes, in the least expected places, beauty.