Thursday, March 19, 2009

Replay Review: "Hunger"

NOTE: This is a re-run of my review that I posted on December 4 during the film's one week Oscar qualification run. Hunger officially opens tomorrow, March 20.

Every year, in a last ditch attempt to squeeze their films in under the wire for Oscar consideration, studios open their films for one week qualifying runs in Los Angeles, while not giving them an official release until the next year. Usually, the result is the film goes totally overlooked.

IFC did it last year to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, to infamous results. The year before that, Sony Pictures Classics did the same thing to The Lives of Others, which went on to win Best Foreign Language Film, but failed to garner the hoped for recognition outside of that category.

This year, IFC is dumping Steve McQueen's heralded directorial debut, Hunger, into a one week LA run that all but kills its chances at Oscar recognition, since it won't be around to remind anyone that it exists. In other words, by the time it it officially released in March of 2009, it will have been all but forgotten about.

Which is a real shame, because what McQueen has achieved here is simply stunning. The film takes an unflinching look at the conflict in Northern Ireland in 1981, as the Irish Republican Army was fighting to achieve political status for the prisoners that had been captured by the British, who are considered criminal terrorists by the government.

The prisoners, for their part, respond by smearing their own feces on the walls of their cells, pouring their urine out into the hall, refusing to cut their hair and wear British clothing, instead choosing to go naked with only blankets for cover. The prison guards respond with brutal beatings, forced baths and haircuts (which usually result in many cuts to the head), and painful humiliation. The prisoners live in squalor and are treated as animals, and the IRA has had enough.

So they organize a hunger strike from within the walls of the prison. What follows is perhaps one of the most astonishing and gut wrenching portrayals of the deterioration of a human being in cinema history. Michael Fassbender, who went on a medically monitored crash diet for his role, doesn't appear until half way through the film, but once he does, he owns it. His portrayal of strike leader Bobby Sands is nothing short of extraordinary. We literally see him wasting away before our eyes, ending up as a ghastly shell of a man, all protruding bones and open sores. It's horrific, the entire film is, but McQueen doesn't allow us to look away. He grabs us by the throats and rubs our faces in it.

The film is made with minimal editing, one notable single shot lasts a reported 17 minutes (which according to IMDB is a world record). I was reminded while watching that scene (pictured above), in which Bobby lays out the strike plans to a sympathetic priest, of a similar long take in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. While this scene doesn't have the same emotional layering of the (admittedly superior) Romanian film, it is one of the most riveting scenes I have seen in a film all year. Fassbender commands the scene with a jaw-dropping intensity, the topic of his death a nonchalant non-issue in a much larger picture.

In fact the whole film is nearly devoid of emotion, which is apt considering the rough surroundings. This is as tough and gritty a film as you will ever see. One could say it isn't so much about the death of one man but about the resilience of the human spirit, but that seems too simple and ready for "Lifetime" network. No, Hunger is about death and dirt and shit and blood and sheer ugliness in the face of unrelenting darkness. But it is also about the unheralded strength of human will. These men are willing to die in the most horrible ways imaginable for their freedom. McQueen allows us to walk away shattered, beaten, and horrified, with our own conclusions. But one can't help but feel in an age where one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, that this conflict echoes very much into our own time. How is it that you can fight an "enemy" who is unafraid to die?

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HUNGER; Directed by Steve McQueen; Stars Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Liam Cunningham; Not Rated; Opens tomorrow, 3/20, in New York.

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