McQueen's visual-arts background results in a debut of startling confidence and control — beautifully framed shots, a provocative use of sound and silence, purposeful rhyming imagery, absorbing long shots, and an inventive structure.
Though the film is ostensibly about Sands and his hunger strike, Sands (in a charismatic performance from Michael Fassbender) doesn't appear until a third of the way into the film, and his hunger strike isn't depicted until the final 20 minutes. McQueen first sets up the film's landscape with a series of linked protagonists leading to Sands.
First is Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham, a knockout, nearly wordless performance), a Maze guard first seen eating breakfast at his home before checking the undercarriage of his car for a bomb. Next is Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a frightened new prisoner.
Through these two initial characters, McQueen depicts the normal life of the prison, where everyone fits into social roles that dehumanize both guard and prisoner. The inmates at Maze, who go naked after refusing to where prison garb, are resourceful, using what little they have at their disposal (feces, urine, food, insects, and their own bodies) to pursue their needs (creativity, dissent, communication, companionship).
Taut, pale, covered in facial hair, they might be cavemen, adorning their stone walls in shit tableaux, at least until a "no-wash strike" is ended by brutally mandated haircuts and baths, their cells pressure-washed. McQueen juxtaposes the raging, roiling, bloody bathtub waters where Sands — introduced here — has been forcibly washed against the calm but also bloodied sink water when Lohan soaks his bruised knuckles.
Following one particularly noisy protest, the inmates are subjected to a body-cavity search backed up by beatings from imported riot police, one of whom McQueen captures shrinking from his duty — recoiling, weeping.
Hunger's depiction of suffering and degradation is unflinchingly direct and can be hard to take, but never feels gratuitous. The film manages to be at once gritty and ascetic, the noisy violence and squalor of the early prison scenes and the quiet agony of the later hunger-strike scenes broken up by a bravura 24-minute dialogue (including one nearly 17-minute unbroken shot) in which Sands meets with his acerbic priest (Liam Cunningham) to announce his decision — an argument for martyrdom the film witnesses more than endorses. For a film in which dialogue (not sound, speech) is otherwise irrelevant, this oasis of talk contextualizes what happens before and after.
Hunger screens — only once — at the Brooks Museum of Art as part of an ongoing and very fruitful partnership between the Brooks and Indie Memphis.
Brooks Museum of Art, Thursday, June 4th, 7:30 p.m., $7 or $5 for Indie Memphis or Brooks members