Tuesday, March 17, 2009

McQueen's HUNGER: Opening up old wounds for a new generation

What a juxtaposition to read yesterday's David Park Op-Ed piece (about the recent terrorist killings in Northern Ireland) in The New York Times and then head directly out to a screening of HUNGER, the new movie by Britain's Turner Prize-winning film/photography artist and first-time filmmaker Steve McQueen. This extremely disturbing movie thrusts us back nearly three decades into the heat of the Irish "troubles" and the time of the famous hunger strike by (depending on one's viewpoint) patriot, politician or terrorist Bobby Sands, which resulted in his death some weeks later.

For a first-film, Hunger is a remarkably disciplined and accomplished work. It begins quietly, with hands being dipped into a bathroom sink full of water. From there we come to realize that the owner of these hands is in some sort of position of duty -- and danger. Enormous suspense grows quickly, as he prepares to leave his home via automobile. (Contrast this few minutes of film with the opening of the new French gangster opus Mesrine, and you'll see an almost perfect comparison of subtlety that draws us in and cliche that ends up as schlock.) From here we go to a prison where we meet guards and their prisoners, proceeding to some of the most vile scenes I've witnessed on film, made ever more so by the rigor brought to them by McQueen (shown left, above, with his star Michael Fassbender, right, and below).

The little political back-story we get comes via bits of radio announcements, newscasts and interviews we hear along the way. Hunger presumes its audience will have more than a nodding acquaintance with the Ireland and Britain of 30 years ago. This, of course, makes the movie anything but fit for mainstream America. Because so much of it is so brutal, it will also have difficulty filling art cinemas. But I suspect its filmmaker and US distributor realize this and will pleased to see the film stand as a kind of record of re-conceived events.

There is little spoken dialog for the first half of the movie; then mid-way, Sands meets with a Catholic priest (fine work from Liam Cunningham, shown right, below) and engages in a conversation that runs the gamut from bitterly hilarious to deeply sad while remaining on-point and explorative regarding the reason for Sands' upcoming hunger strike. The remainder of the film is devoted to that strike and its results.

Visually, McQueen does some splendid stuff (the cinematography is by Sean Bobbitt). One scene in particular spans the long hallway between the many cells -- from each of which spills the urine the inmates have collected to give back to their captors. We see the puddles collect and merge into a fine, if unusual, image of solidarity. Other images are equally strong, often arriving without dialog and always without needless explanation. Generally the director's pristine visuals work well. Only when it comes to the prisoner's shit-encrusted walls (their gift to themselves, as well as to their captors) do the visuals seems a bit too pristine. There's no sense of the smell that would have to be present, especially when a newcomer (Brian Milligan, shown below, right, with Liam McMahon) is introduced into the cell.

My biggest quibble with the movie, which I think succeeds admirably in accomplishing what it sets out to do, comes with its flashback finale. Under the circumstances of all that has preceded this, McQueen oddly resorts to a tried-and-true few moments that come off as very close to sentimental and cliched. Suddenly, a movie that has been rigorous and appalling goes soft. I don't think we need this. (Mainstream audiences might -- and god knows they've watched this sort of thing often enough by now -- but they're not likely to be in the theater or at home On-Demand when Hunger screens.) I guess all directors, even the very new and very talented, must make choices. Or concessions.

opens Friday, March 20, at the IFC Center, with a national release to follow. It will also be available nationwide on IFC Films’ video-on-demand platform, available to 50 million homes in all major markets.

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