In the opening shot of Hunger, a small army of protesters — hunger-strikers, perhaps — is bringing the noise by banging empty soup bowls loudly against the ground. That scene is followed, lyrically, by a scene depicting an older, staid-looking gentleman eating his breakfast, tiny crumbs tumbling from his fork onto the napkin tucked away on his lap and then getting brushed away. He heads out to his car, looks up and down the street, and then falls to his knees and peers carefully at the car’s undercarriage before opening the door and getting in. His wife watches from the front-room window, the tension on her face easing slightly as the car roars to life and her husband drives away. This man turns out to be a guard at a prison in Northern Ireland. We see this man washing blood from his knuckles, which have been torn raw by the force of some blunt impact. It’s only later that we’re shown the sadistic behavior that earned him those scars. In a scene that toys with an audience’s mounting sense of dread, we see him taking a smoke break outside the prison walls, enjoying the tactile sensation of a light snowfall before heading back inside to do, we suspect, his worst. It’s a tense, expertly fraught study in contrasts that dramatizes the difference between the haves and the have-nots — the fed and the hungry.

The opening scenes seemed like such an eloquent way to dramatize the social problems of the era, the chasm separating the British government from the nationalist Irish Republican Army, that director Steve McQueen won me over easily; I was ready to go where he wanted to. What I really appreciated was Hunger’s unconventional, unpredictable structure. Following the travails of a pair of prisoners, one new arrival and one more seasoned inmate, it depicts the frankly brutish conditions inside a prison where captured members of the IRA were kept after losing “political” status — in other words, they were being treated as ordinary criminals rather than prisoners of war. It’s here that McQueen largely wordlessly establishes the ground rules for the so-called “blanket strikes” (the inmates were naked because they refused to wear prison garb) and “no-wash strikes” (rather than maintain a sanitary environment, they emptied their urine into the prison corridors and smeared excrement on the walls) that were the inmates’ ways of agitating for a restoration of their status as political prisoners. He also dramatizes their treatment at the hands of their keepers, who drag them naked and screaming through the corridors, go at their heads and faces with blades in a bloody approximation of a shave and a haircut, and at one point even bring in a riot squad just to beat the hell out of them. One of the policemen has a crisis of conscience and hides on the opposite side of a partition, sweating and gasping as the torture continues.

At some point, the film shifts its focus to a third prisoner, who turns out to be Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). We learn this in a bravura centerpiece that includes a very long single take depicting the bulk of a conversation between Sands and the visiting Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), in which Sands notifies the priest that the inmates, passing secret notes among themselves and with visitors from outside, have agreed to enact a second hunger strike. Demanding a return of their status as political prisoners, a group of them will stop eating, one by one and on a staggered schedule so that their slow, consecutive deaths will cause the maximum embarrassment over the longest timespan for the intransigent English government both locally and internationally. The priest, with a finely articulated argument, tries to talk him out of it, but Sands parries his every appeal, trumping the case against martyrdom with a declaration of his long-held and deeply felt conviction in the value of self-sacrifice for the greater good. I didn’t know it was coming, so I didn’t start glancing furtively at my watch until several minutes into the scene, once I realized it was going to be one of those long takes. Reviewers say it runs anywhere from 15 minutes up in a single shot, and in the press notes McQueen makes reference to shooting a single, 22-minute take. (This is possible because the production used a special “2-perf” film stock that doubles the number of widescreen frames that can be printed in a 35mm film magazine.) As it appears in the final cut, it seems to have been covered from two additional angles, close-ups that McQueen eventually cuts to. But the effect was still riveting. I hung on nearly every word. The lighting choice in that shot is interesting. As they converse, both Fassbender and Cunningham are depicted in a sort of half-shadow, so it’s hard to make out their facial features, but they’re backlit, which creates a kind of halo around both of them. It foregrounds the issues and ideas in conversation, rather than the artifice of the actors’ performances. Toward the end of the conversation, as Sands fully explains the depths of his moral certainty and the priest becomes resigned to his failure to sway the man, the film cuts to close-ups, first of Fassbender and then of Cunningham, so we finally get a good look at their faces. It’s clearly the film’s high point.

From there, unfortunately, Hunger becomes rather more ordinary, as an increasingly emaciated-looking Michael Fassbender acts out the last days of Bobby Sands. As usual with films featuring an actor who dramatically alters his body weight to portray stages in a given character’s life, there’s a metatextual component — Fassbender’s dedication to the role necessarily echoes, in a much smaller and quieter way, Sands’s dedication to his cause. I don’t mean to slight Fassbender’s achievement here (he’s quite extraordinarily in the role) when I write that the film suffers in this section because it finally settles down and does exactly what an audience expects it to — it depicts, in excruciating detail and with maximum solemnity, the terrible sacrifice this man was willing to make for purely symbolic value. It doesn’t help much that McQueen resorts to some fairly hoary editorial tricks — he intercuts footage of birds in flight, and finally stages a reunion between Sands and his boyhood self — to try and enhance the emotional payload. Fassbender’s physical presence in that deathbed really is something, though — I was reminded of the excruciating scenes at the end of the documentary Silverlake Life: The View From Here, in which a wasted-away AIDS patient essentially dies on camera as his lover watches, powerless to stop it.

But I keep thinking back to the first section of the film, which so effectively depicts a special kind of hell that it makes you root for those poor sons-of-bitches in the prison regardless of what they may have done to earn their place there. The film’s single, isolated depiction of IRA-sponsored violence is bloody and awful if you take it literally, but in the near-abstract way that McQueen presents it, it plays like a revenge scenario. (The victim of this shooting is hardly an innocent.) Mostly, McQueen ducks the question of what, exactly, the IRA was up to in those heady days, considering Sands’s actions in the purest possible terms — they’re simply those of an intelligent, dignified soldier who’s willing to die in a horrible way in service of an ideal. I’m not equipped to get into a detailed discussion of the violence in Northern Ireland during the 1960s and 1970s, or to argue about whether acts of violence on the part of a repressed underclass can ever be justified. But because it devotes so much energy to depicting his martyrdom, and none at all to considering the morality of the actions that made him notorious in the first place, Hunger could be read as an apologia for terrorism. Then again, the movie explicitly makes the point that whether or not an act of violence is terrorism depends largely on your point of view. To Margaret Thatcher, Bobby Sands was an unrepentant terrorist. To Bobby Sands and his like-minded Irish nationalists, he was a man at war. As a matter of fact, the strikers’ demands for political status hinged on exactly that semantic question — who is the soldier and who is the terrorist?

Finally, and putting that question of Sands’ ultimate guilt aside, the most cogent political argument Hunger makes may be simply that if you treat people like animals for long enough, not only are they prepared to go to extraordinary lengths in the name of what they perceive to be justice, but they’re likely to get the rest of the world to turn against you, too. Considering how unavoidably the scenes of prisoner abuse here echo the recent, indelible images from Abu Ghraib, the lesson remains timely.

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