It's really only with the ending title cards of Hunger, outlining the political consequences and subsequent details of the IRA leader Bobby Sands's 1981 hunger strike at the HM Prison Maze, that you realize just how much you've missed — the film's spare approach is detail-oriented to the point of elliptical, but if the movie dispenses itself unevenly it also leaves a lingering sense of starkness, to say nothing of maybe the best scene in movies this year.
It comes a little more, I think, than halfway through the movie, when Sands (Michael Fassbender, pictured) sits down with a priest to discuss his plans for a hunger strike in an effort to have their demands met — chiefly, recognition as political prisoners (which entails for instance wearing their own clothes. The IRA inmates have also been refusing to wash, shave, or wear prison clothes — it's a lot of hairy guys in towels and shit-stained cells, give or take a bloody forced haircut).
The scene — 28 pages in the shooting script, I'm told — is extraordinary. It's shot in a single sideview two-shot, Sands and the priest facing off in profile; then, on a shift in the scene, to a close-up on Sands; a shorter reaction shot of the priest; back to the two-shot, then an extreme close-up of a smoldering ashtray and out.
The dialogue (the writers are the visual artist and first-time director Steve "No Not That One" McQueen and playwright Enda Walsh) starts out as a flood of banter and biography, shifting into political and theological debate — politics and theology being basically inseparable in North Ireland, and Bobby's plan to starve himself to death being both an act of political symbolism and religious martyrdom. The conversation gets there through reminiscences about childhood and the Northern Ireland countryside; the notion of the land as a nostalgic idea of home overlaps with a patriotic sense of homeland and a religious sense of paradise. The writing is beautifully shaded; throughout, the speech is clipped and confident.
McQueen and Walsh don't push the obvious parallels they're working with — terrorists who are either criminals or political prisoners, who are religiously motivated and striking out against an empire — but they're there.
Before this flood of words, though, the film is mostly dialogue-free, without music but with a grim, droning sound design, and orients us with the conditions and processes of the prison less with exposition than with observational wide shots and clinical close-ups. Which is not to say that the movie takes place in a neutral visual space: yes the presence of bodily fluids and viscera are part of this existence, and yes the film seeks to ground us in that experience, but McQueen ceases to be merely matter-of-fact when he makes the mistake of cutting in to emphatic close-ups.
We're also partly oriented by a narrative that avoids identification with any one character — Sands is a tangential figure for the film's first half — but the focalization is uncertain, sometimes resting upon a character only present for a single sequence. It's less rounded than fragmented — the single-mided focus on the stuff of this world ends up collecting in misshapen piles. By the time we get to the last couple reels, and a single-minded focus on the awful truth of Sands's hunger strike — physically objective (mostly: see above) to the point of being excruciating — it's too late. Movies that work to accumulate meaning need time and clarity, but even for its asceticism Hunger is essentially kinda flighty — a feast-or-famine moviegoing experience.
Hunger plays tomorrow at noon and Sunday at 6:15pm. IFC Films will release the film theatrically and via video-on-demand early next year.