Flix Picks is a semi-regular feature that explores the depths of my Netflix queue and allows me the chance to catch up with some older films that I’ve not yet seen.
With Michael Fassbender quickly becoming one of the most buzzed about actors this year thanks to X-Men: First Class as well as the upcoming A Dangerous Method (not to mention next year’s Prometheus), I thought I would take a step back in his filmography and check out what many would call his breakout performance in Hunger. I recall his work in Steve McQueen’s prison drama receiving rave reviews upon its release, but, for one reason or another, I let the film slip by me. Fortunately, Netflix helped solve that problem via its ever-convenient Instant Watch. After viewing the film, I found that, as expected, it features some tough subject matter that could keep people away, but it’s certainly worth viewing.
Hunger takes place in 1981 Ireland when there was considerable trouble brewing between the British and the IRA. Many members of the IRA were thrown into prison for committing what were deemed terrorist acts. The film focuses specifically on the Maze prison whose inmates participated in extreme protests in an effort to restore their Special Category Status for convicted paramilitary prisoners – what would essentially give them the rights of POWs. Unfortunately, neither side was willing to budge, resulting in some of the worst prison conditions you could ever imagine. Fortunately for viewers, Hunger does not dwell on the political details so much as it wants to present a visceral story on the lengths people will go to get their voices heard.
First and foremost, this film is relentless in its portrayal of prison life. As part of their protests the inmates refuse to wash or wear prison uniforms, covering themselves only with blankets. They also take every opportunity to turn their cells into miniature garbage dumps, throwing uneaten food in the corners and smearing feces on the walls. In a coordinated effort, each cell dispenses puddles of urine into the hallway. Naturally, the guards retaliate with their own efforts, lining up down the hallway and beating the inmates one by one until they eventually receive forced baths and hair cuts. It’s quite possibly the most brutal view of prison life I’ve seen on film and not for the faint of heart.
The film follows a somewhat atypical structure, more divided into three storylines highlighting different aspects of prison life. The first concerns a prison officer as he follows his daily routine. The second follows a new prisoner as he joins his assigned cellmate in protest activities. The third tells the story of inmate Bobby Sands (Fassbender) who decides to organize a hunger strike to stir up support for the prisoners cause. All of these storylines add layers to the film, although I thought the second one wasn’t fully utilized. Even though we spend a fair amount of time with those characters, there is no payoff for them. Instead, any arc they might have had gets dropped in favor of time with Bobby Sands. And, while the material with Fassbender is great, it’s somewhat odd that most of his scenes are left for the last half of the film. But in the grand scheme of things, these issues with the structure are relatively minor considering all the aspects the film gets right.
With his first outing as director, Steve McQueen demonstrates an impressive flare for pure visual storytelling. It’s true that there’s no shortage of shocking imagery, but, at times, the understated moments of daily routine can be equally striking and insightful. For example, the seemingly mundane shots of the prison guard’s routine (both at home and work) efficiently informs us so much about how he lives than pages of dialog ever could. Likewise, the many details of prison life add so much to the overall tone of the film. Just watching Fassbender carefully roll up a page from his Bible to smoke gives you such a feel for the prison setting and you become that much more drawn into it. Even shots of people performing basic jobs like cleaning a urine-soaked hallway have a certain engrossing quality to them. That might seem odd, but when you’re invested in the world of a film, you appreciate the details. As a result, the images of this film have lingered in my mind more than most recent cinema experiences.
Fassbender delivers a powerful performance as Bobby Sands, living up to the praise I’d heard. Like the film itself, he’s completely unrelenting. The main showcase for Fassbender occurs during a 16-minute static shot when his character converses with a priest (Liam Cunningham) about plans for a hunger strike. In the wrong hands a scene like this could turn tedious quickly, but Fassbender proves more than capable of compelling us with Sands’ passion and determinism. In the scenes of the hunger strike, the physical transformation he undergoes ranks among the most dramatic I’ve ever seen. This is Christian Bale in The Machinist level of thin. He doesn’t have to act during this sequence as much as simply exist. His appearance becomes the performance. My only complaint would be that the film doesn’t focus on him from the very beginning so that more time and investment could be spent on the character.
As far as prison films or social dramas go, Hunger stands out as one of the better films of the past few years. The film paints a portrait of prison life that feels altogether convincing, brutal, and haunting. In many respects the story is a devastating experience, but it also highlights the strength of humanity. While I didn’t think it was absolutely perfect, Hunger certainly marks the arrival of a talented visual director and it provided a breakthrough role for Fassbender. Now I’m considerably more interested in their next collaboration, entitled Shame, due later this year.
Well, enough about my thoughts on the film. If you’re a Netflix subscriber, give Hunger a watch, if you haven’t already, and post your comments below.
Recommended If You Like: In the Name of the Father, The Shawshank Redemption, Midnight Express