There is so much to thrill over in Hunger, artist Steve McQueen’s directorial debut (and his first collaboration with his Shame star, Michael Fassbender). Studying the IRA prisoners who staged a hunger strike in 1981, Hunger is really an extraordinary piece of film. It is wonderfully paced, taking time, for example, to watch a prisoner interact with a bug. That may sound uninteresting or too avant-garde for some, but it’s actually a beautiful moment of character development. This man is forced to slow down and focus on the little moments life brings his way.
And for a good chunk of the film there’s hardly any dialogue. That doesn’t mean nothing is happening. On the contrary, much is being communicated and going on. McQueen is less interested in articulating every detail with words. (David Mamet, you could learn from him.) Instead, the visual artist conveys intense emotions with his framing, allowing us to be observers.
Plus, he has phenomenal actors bringing this true story to life. Fassbender plays ringleader Bobby Sands. After saying very little for the first 50 minutes, Sands meets with Father Dominic Moran, played by Liam Cunningham, and the two engage in a stunning, single shot tete-a-tete. McQueen has them backlit so you see the characters in silhouette, forcing us to focus on the words. Sands and Father Moran debate the merits of the pending hunger strike, and it makes you wish the important, complex issues of today were debated with such fierce intelligence.
After the long, single shot, we cut to a close up of Fassbender, and the camera stays there for several more minutes while Sands tells a story. Fassbender is mesmerizing, but that’s just the beginning. He goes on to top himself later in the story, when Sands is in a hospital bed approaching the last moments of his life. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a look quite as layered and intense as the one of anguish, despair and maybe a little pride taking over Fassbender’s face in that moment.
Hunger is gripping and intense – it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. But those interested in the craft of filmmaking, the art of storytelling and masterful acting should definitely check it out.