A hunger strike isn’t something that you’ll ever accuse me of participating in!
Written By: Steve McQueen & Enda Walsh
Directed By: Steve McQueen
I’m not the biggest follower of The Criterion Collection, but my interest is piqued anytime a more recent film enters the Collection. This isn’t an occurrence that is rare mind you, but still, I have an interest in new films that are chosen over the vast number of older films that have yet to make it into the Collection. Of course films like Armageddon make my interest even more salient, because I still don’t understand why such a common blockbuster made it into the Collection. That being said, Hunger intrigued me because of it’s entry into The Criterion Collection, the positive buzz I had heard about Steve McQueen, and my personal experience with a hunger strike.
Slow your horses everyone, I’m not saying I went on a hunger strike. Rather, one year I went on a college field trip to Statesville Prison here in Illinois. During my group’s tour of the facility we came across the medical ward. The guard conducting the tour told us that one of the medical cells housed a man who had been on a hunger strike for over a year. Obviously this creates a much different scenario than that seen in Hunger. This man was on a hunger strike, but the state would not let him die because of his strike. Thus, they allowed him to refuse to eat but they had him hooked up to an IV line that supplied him with all the fluids and nutrients he needed to not die. It seemed to me that this man’s protest was in vain, but he had his reasons and I was given something to marvel at if nothing else. Hunger’s portrayal of a hunger strike is much different. It’s far more brutal and sickening, but in an odd way it isn’t any more dehumanizing. At least in Hunger Bobby Sands was given the option to die, in Statesville the prisoner on hunger strike had the right to die taken away from him.
What most struck me about Hunger was how it was beautiful in an ugly fashion. I have written about this in the past, but I firmly believe the beautiful but ugly label applies to Hunger. Each frame of this film is impeccably orchestrated, and every moment looks better than the next. There were times when I could but look at Hunger and drop my jaw at the technical artistry of Mr. McQueen and the cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt. Hunger is haunting in its beauty, and stunning in its unflinching depiction of brutality and dehumanization. A movie that is a beautiful as it is ugly, Hunger is a special bird.
There’s a recurring theme of liquid in Hunger. One character scalds his hands in hot water to atone for his transgressions as a guard. Another character is entrusted with using a hot water sprayer to wash away the filth left behind by the prisoners. Finally, on a couple of occasions we are shown a hallway full of urine. A prison worker throws some bleach on the urine and squeegees it away. Mr. McQueen focuses on fluids throughout Hunger, and he shows how something so essential to life can be used in such marginalized ways. Hunger is like one delicately woven tapestry, with each part commenting on the other and informing what is to come and what came before.
Hunger is most definitely worthy of its place in The Criterion Collection. Admittedly I am no authority on the Collection and am not the person to be saying what belongs and what doesn’t. But, what I can say is that Hunger is a great film that makes perfect sense as a member of the Collection. Michael Fassbender is terrific, the minimalist filmmaking is superb, and the film is thought provoking in ways that I didn’t expect. Watching characters be stripped of their humanity is never pleasant, but staring the truth of the harshness of humanity down is sometimes essential to understanding what makes humanity tick. Hunger asks us to stare and then dares us not to look away. I didn’t look away, and I hope that anyone who watches Hunger will be willing to let the harshness of Mr. McQueen’s vision hit them hard where it counts.