Hunger is a film that has a goal. It’s mission is to show you how terrible life is for people in a prison. Both guards and inmates alike are treated to awful conditions. Oh, and there’s also something about a hunger strike, but that’s only in the last 30 minutes of the film and isn’t actually all that important in the grand scheme of things, at least, not in the movie. In real life, I’m sure it was a big deal, but as it’s portrayed in Hunger, likely due to the tone of the movie, I couldn’t bring myself to care.
The film opens with a prison guard, and we watch him go through a day of his life. Well, part of the day. He seems depressed, although we’re not entirely sure why, Then we watch a new inmate, Davey (Brian Milligan), who is just entering the prison. He refuses to wear a uniform, and is forced to strip down and then given a simple blanket. His roommate is Gerry (Liam McMahon), who had the same treatment. These will be our leads for the first part of the film, as we watch them lead their lives inside a prison.
But there’s something more going on. There’s a radio transmission that we hear near the beginning of Hunger that tells us that Republican prisoners who commit crimes for political purposes wished to be given their political rights, instead of being treated like any other common lawbreaker. We see these men passing paper back and forth whenever they get the chance, seemingly getting ready to plan something. At one point in the film, they dump their urine-filled pans into the hall, all at the same time. Boy, that will prove your point. We watch a janitor clean it up. And we still watch, because the shot is held for a long time. This is a time when cutting earlier would be better.
Our previous leads are forgotten about soon enough though, as we are introduced to Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). We first see him violently refusing to take a bath, and as a result, he’s beaten viciously. And then he also gets his hair and beard cut. He becomes our new protagonist, and also the leader of the aforementioned hunger strike, which the film’s title would have you believe it’s about. That’s not true, but “Hunger” is a better title than “Life in a Prison Sucks.” Or maybe it isn’t, because the latter is both more accurate and is probably the title of a book just waiting to be adapted into a movie. Maybe not.
At one point, Sands claims that he has 70 men willing to follow him in this strike. He tells this to a priest (Liam Cunningham), in the film’s highlight. There’s a conversation that takes place between the two characters, and it lasts approximately seventeen minutes. There are no cuts in this conversation, at least, not until Sands begins to light his third cigarette. Think about how difficult that would be to act out. Seventeen minutes without making any mistakes (although I wonder if some of the dialogue was re-dubbed after filming took place). This was fascinating to me, as the priest tries to talk Sands out of going through with the strike.
For those of you familiar with the events that Hunger is based on, you know how it ends. For those who aren’t, I won’t spoil it, although it sticks with the film’s tone of being bleak and daunting. There are few, if any, shots of joy in this film, with the only one I can think of coming before Davey is imprisoned, where the prison guard is having a joke with his colleagues. I can’t think of any other moments where characters smiled or laughed, or when I didn’t want to stop watching this movie.
With a tone so disparate, both before and after the hunger strike begins, you know you’re not in for a fun watch. That’s not what Hunger is about, but I could not get into it. It’s no fun, and there’s little to take from it without there being reason to do so. I think part of the reason that Hunger didn’t grab me was because of director Steve McQueen’s filming style. Instead of focusing on characters or their relationships, we get extended shots of, for example, a janitor cleaning up spilled urine or power washing a wall that has been splattered with excrement.
Characters are what make a powerful drama, but instead, we’re supposed to sympathize with random people who get beaten at the drop of a hat. There’s little development on anyone but Sands, but even watching him starve himself, while a grim image, didn’t make me feel anything. And I’m someone who likes dark and depressing dramas. It also feels disjointed, moving from character to character like they’re random soldiers in an army, although we spend a lot of time with them doing nothing except living in dreadful conditions. I’m sure that the people making this film did their research and it’s a fairly realistic depiction of how life would have been for these people, but it just isn’t enjoyable for the audience.
Hunger is a film that is unconventionally shot, unyielding in showing us the conditions of the prison, but also not fun at all for the audience. It’s an art house film about how terrible life can be for people fighting for their rights, and the lengths that they’ll go to in order to procure said rights, but its lack of character depth and its desolate tone make it a watch that is absolutely no fun.