Silence is torture, and torture is silence. So goes Steve McQueen’s riveting debut Hunger, a brutally restrained biopic about IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who in 1981 conducted a hunger strike while attempting to gain political status from the Thatcher-led UK government. McQueen makes Sands’ story the centerpiece of a larger mosaic within the prison, where guards, prisoners, and riot cops all construct a collective fabric woven by isolation, fear, and loyalty. While most of the film takes place inside cells, meeting rooms, and infirmaries – moments simmering with a predetermined sense of tragedy and loneliness – the supposed “free” spaces outside, like public roads and parking lots, remain vacant, even menacing throughout, as if war could break out at any time in even the calmest suburban neighborhoods.
Hunger whittles the standard biopic conventions down to an elemental level, where character information, bursts of violence, and crucial politics rush by in a flash, lasting just long enough for a vapor of subtext to potently linger. McQueen brilliantly builds his narrative out of silence within horrific spaces, relying on the textures of the place to speak for its characters. Feces cover the walls in Jackson Pollack-like patterns, urine flows from under doorways, and blood stains overlap on the concrete floors, stubborn displays of disobedience from the inside out.
Everything builds off of Michael Fassbender’s haunting physical performance, both before his body transforms into a riddled mesh of bones and sores, and certainly after. There’s really only one major dialogue scene in the film, and it’s a 16 minute stunner between Sands and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) shot in one static long take. Here, McQueen sums up his film’s thesis – ideological suffering and physical pain are completely different entities, yet connected by the failures of compassion and communication.
Hunger takes this momentum and churns one final silent coup, a slow, mostly still disintegration of body but not mind, showing Sands at rest remembering the simple beauty of his origins, unwavering in his dedication to the cause. Is it real, romanticized, or just memories merging together to justify his sacrifice? This mental battle is both a scary, devastating, and thought-provoking finale to a film dedicated to the horrors of interior conflict.