One doubts that any feature film could more maturely, passionately, or elegantly evoke the madness and confusion at the heart of the early-'80s IRA conflict than Irish director Steve McQueen's harrowing docudrama Hunger. The film unfurls in 1981, around the tail end of the IRA prisoners' "no wash" strike against the Brits, and dramatizes the martyrdom of Irishman Bobby Sands, champion of a hunger strike within a penitentiary -- and a man who led at least nine of his fellow inmates to the grave in pursuit of unascertained political status. Yet the Sands tale only occupies the second half of the picture. Long before we can identify Sands or follow his crusade, McQueen takes his time to establish the overall atmosphere of the prison and, more importantly, the profound and noble ideas at the core of his film.
The deepest truths and insights into McQueen's perspective arrive in an opening sequence, when we observe a British prison employee, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) gazing at himself in the mirror, with a weathered and disillusioned face. Lohan's deep-set, slightly pained eyes aren't eyes that lack a conscience, and his countenance will return to haunt our memories time and again throughout this picture -- likewise, his routine ritual of plunging his bloody, skinned knuckles into warm water to ease the pain. Lohan may be an administrator of brutality (like the other guards, he generates an adequate amount of disdain in the audience, and sympathy toward the prisoners via his brutal actions), but his ability to suffer makes him more human in our eyes -- as does his decision to take flowers to his catatonic mother. Our feelings toward the IRA remain equally balanced; not long after we witness the psychotically violent, perhaps fatal beating of an IRA prisoner (by a uniformed British guard), McQueen interpolates an appalling, sickening act of violence from an IRA terrorist that redefines one's notion of shocking. It comes out of nowhere, unfolds in the sweetest and most benign of locations, and ends with the gunman practically jaunting away merrily, hands in his pockets. The central message is clear: the men on both sides of this fence are neither monsters nor saints. Both the guards and the suffering prisoners have been irrevocably plunged by fate into the same maelstrom of suffering.
Curiously, for a drama about the IRA, the first half of the film completely omits ideological argument and an exploration of the political goings-on at the core of this tumult. And that represents a deliberate choice. For the humanistic McQueen, everything within the prison represents complete insanity -- from the fecal matter smeared on the cell walls, to the slop thrown into bedside troughs, to the maggots swarming around one sleeping prisoner's head, to the said beatings. At the heart of everything, the director reminds us, these men are men, who belong to the same human quilt, and the groups have mutually resigned themselves to the same pit of despair and masochism -- making all external conflicts irrelevant when held up next to the film's gut-wrenching plea for sympathy.
The picture then shifts gears dramatically at about the 45-minute mark, moving into the Sands story, and in what will go down as one of the most audacious directorial choices of 2008, McQueen commits the film and the audience to a fixed shot and a single take for about 20 minutes. Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest, Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), sit on opposite ends of the same table, dissect the pros and cons of martyrdom, and fire arguments at one another on the progression versus regression of the IRA cause. The scene packs an emotional and intellectual wallop: McQueen fully enables us to grasp (and possibly share) the priest's logic, his die-hard conviction that the notion of a hunger strike is absurd and pointless, and his belief that the IRA is a worthy cause but has lost its original foundation, just as the director explores the logic behind Bobby's rebuttals. The fixed shot is thus valuable for keeping the men equidistant from the audience, and underscoring the ideological balance present in the conversation. The film concludes with long, anatomically detailed, and thoroughly devastating sequences of the prisoner withering away to nothing, yet McQueen laces the scenes with lyrical cutaways to Bobby's childhood, hallucinations that his childhood self is visiting him, and images of birds aloft, that draw out the grace and nobility within the man's soul and recall an identical metaphor in Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc.
McQueen entitled his picture Hunger, but it just as easily could have been entitled "Equivocation" -- not the equivocation of uncertainty in terms of presentation or approach (nothing could be further from the truth -- every shot here feels perfectly chosen and sustained), but the moral equivocation that results from looking at a multifaceted struggle head-on and realizing that complete empathy with either side, and black-and-white feelings about the logic belying Bobby's final, fatal choices, are virtually impossible without a distortion of the truth. The maturity of this emotionally overwhelming motion picture lies in its patent refusal to paint its characters, situations, or central ideas with broad strokes.