Hunger (2008) is a superb showcase of acting and filmmaking technique, yet I didn’t feel satisfied when it was over. To be fair, it’s not a traditional film. Hunger is a 24-minute dialogue scene bookended by 72 minutes of wordless storytelling. That one dialogue scene is spectacular, maybe the best I’ve ever seen, but I felt shortchanged by the rest of the film. I think I speak for most moviegoing audiences when I say that I like seeing people talk on screen. A movie without dialogue, for some reason, just isn’t as interesting. All subtext and no text makes Jack a dull boy. Maybe that’s because it takes more skill to write a great dialogue scene than a great action scene. Whatever the case, Hunger drives that point home, because if the rest of the movie was as captivating as those 24 minutes, it would be the cinematic achievement of the 21st century. What’s frustrating is that we know it could have happened! Edna Walsh and Steve McQueen have demonstrated an unmatched talent for screenwriting, then turned around and denied us the stuff we most want to see. The scenes without dialogue are good, but they feel like filler.
Hunger is not a film I will soon forget. Michael Fassbender gives an excellent performance as Bobby Sands. He has the raw intensity and emotional focus to play the character truthfully. The entire film is an exercise in self-flagellation and denial of spirit. Bobby Sands put himself through hell and Fassbender doesn’t let you forget it for a second. Watch the scene where the C.O.s have to forcibly wash and shave him. It’s a ruthless, unrelenting piece of acting, so visceral it ought to be illegal. Again, Fassbender delivers palpable torment as his character withers away in a hospital bed for the latter half of the film. It’s difficult to imagine what he must have gone through to achieve this kind of authenticity.
The visuals are striking and understated. McQueen doesn’t go for distorted angles or exaggerated color palettes. Hunger is muted, both in expressivity and composition. There are moments of gruesome poetry, like the falling snow as a police officer takes his cigarette break, or the splatter of blood on an unresponsive mother’s face. There is an unbroken 2½-minute take of a C.O. sweeping a hallway that has been flooded with the inmates’ urine. I can’t count the number of things I saw in this film that I would never see in a blockbuster. What McQueen sets out to do (and he accomplishes it) is to explore the depths of pain that most of us would rather not think about.
Hunger is a bleak film. Don’t watch it if you’re easily-alarmed. The price of admission is that you surrender yourself to the realism of torture. With Steve McQueen, it’s all about catharsis, and Hunger delivers in spades.