I can’t say for sure why I’ve waited so long to see Hunger, or any movie by Steve McQueen for that matter. I suspect that I was afraid (rightfully) that it was the kind of emotionally evocative movie that pushes you right up to all those uncomfortable places relentlessly. Hunger was that, for sure, but I should say that it wasn’t an exercise in how much pain an audience could take. It wasn’t egregious for it’s own sake, rather a deeply humanizing way to tell a story that could very easily have veered into broad platitudes and sweeping global action.
The movie opens with a man, defeated and listless, soaking his injured hand in his bathroom sink as he prepares to go to work. He would rather be doing just about anything else than getting up that morning and going through this routine, soaking his hand, putting his clothes on, eating breakfast. We’ve all been there. Then, he steps outside, past his little carport gate, and into the quaint street in a nondescript working class neighborhood, looks up the street, then down the street, then underneath his car. His wife stands in the window terrified as he starts his car. And with that he’s off to work.
From this scene we move to another, of a scrawny, pale inmate being processed in what looks to be a prison. He simply states that he will not wear the clothes of a criminal. He’s so young, and slowly, excruciatingly, without word from any of the guards surrounding him, strips down until he’s naked, and then is taken to a cell.
The cell is maybe 10′ x 12′ with a tiny, slotted window on the fare end, and the walls are covered in what quickly becomes apparent is shit. Everything about it looks rotting, including the bearded prisoner who is already there, sitting on a single mattress on the floor, staring at the opposite wall. Most of us would break down at that moment, scream to be led away, or at least register shock at such a scene. But the new prisoner acts as if this was expected. A considerable part of the movie from that part is just those two men living in that cell.
We find, eventually, that the first man is a prison guard in Maze Prison where IRA political prisoners are being held, and are in the middle of a protest where the prisoners refuse to wear prison uniforms and, as prison officials have refused them access to toilets without their uniforms, are going to the bathroom in their cells. There is only one scene in the movie where the larger political context is discussed explicitly, a scene between Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham where the rationale, consequences, and efficacy of a hunger strike is being discussed.
The rest of the movie we are quietly, painfully, and completely immersed in the minutiae of the prisoner’s existence, including the slow self-imposed starvation of Bobby Sands. McQueen’s approach is one of the most effective I’ve experienced at bringing such a globally significant down to the most human of levels, not only for those we might be sympathetic with, but really of everyone involved. One of the best movies I’ve ever seen.