Combustible Celluloid
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With: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Helena Bereen, Larry Cowan, Dennis McCambridge, Liam McMahon, Laine Megaw, Brian Milligan, Rory Mullen, Lalor Roddy
Written by: Enda Walsh, Steve McQueen
Directed by: Steve McQueen
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 96
Date: 05/15/2008

Hunger (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Jail Ache

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Firstly, this Steve McQueen is a 39 year-old visual artist, and not the badass American action star who died in 1980. McQueen has made an astonishing feature debut with Hunger, which more or less tells the story of the final weeks in the life of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). It's 1981, and Sands and other Irish Republican Army activists are stuck in Maze prison in Northern Ireland. Sands leads a hunger strike against the horrible prison conditions, which are indeed truly horrible.

At the beginning of the film, we meet a sad prison guard who wakes up in his home and soaks his bruised, bloody knuckles in a sinkful of cold water before sitting down to his fine breakfast. The prisoners sit in cells with walls covered in feces, wearing only blankets, and sharing their bunks with maggots. Occasionally the guards drag them from their cells, beat them up and give them haircuts.

The movie is unrelentingly brutal, highly disturbing and sometimes revolting, but perhaps the showcase sequence is a nearly 20-minute, single, unbroken, unmoving shot in which Sands sits at a table and speaks with Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), about his plan. This is all the more amazing when you consider the almost total lack of dialogue during the rest of the film, as well as the intricate, powerful sound design; the film opens with the clatter of protesters banging plates on tables, followed by a startling silence.

As Steven Soderbergh did with Che, McQueen has totally subverted the stagnant biopic formula with this masterful piece of work; if it weren't so bloody sickening I'd be chomping at the bit to see it again. [Note: this is not to be confused with the many adaptations of Knut Hamsun's novel Hunger, including the 1966 and 2001 films.]

DVD Details: The Criterion Collection has released this amazing film on both DVD and Blu-Ray. The director-approved DVD includes an interview with director McQueen (18 minutes), a interview with actor Fassbender (13 minutes), a "making-of" featurette (13 minutes), and a 1981 BBC news program about the real-life events (45 minutes) and a trailer. The excellent film critic Chris Darke provides the liner notes.

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