For all its grimy aesthetic beauty and stylishly horrifying images of bodily abuse and decay, the most powerful impression made by Hunger is a stationary 20-minute single-take conversation between imprisoned IRA leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham) seated at a table in west Belfast's infamous Maze prison in 1981. A doomed man’s final meeting with religious counsel is a scene seen countless times over, yet video-artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen turns his variation into a tour-de-force of controlled dramatics, his camera’s rigid medium-shot gaze so intense that one can soon feel the propulsive movement of their back-and-forth verbal volleys, which bluntly lay out their differing views on Sands’ plan to stage a suicidal hunger strike. It’s an arresting centerpiece, and does much to cast a shadow over the rest of McQueen’s debut, which begins by depicting the day-to-day mistreatment of IRA prisoners at the hands of prison guards, and concludes with an up-close-and-personal glimpse at Sands’ fatal deterioration. Especially during his opening sequences, McQueen’s visual eye proves sharp, the sight of a circular pattern made in the shit-coated walls of one cell, or of a solitary guard taking a smoke break in the snow, evoking more emotional and thematic content than the narrative’s particulars, which can be rudimentary and, in the case of the guard whose home life we briefly glimpse, cursory. Yet everything before the central conversation, though expertly expressed through economic imagery, feels a tad rote – not to mention arbitrary, what with its focus on two other, less notable prisoners – in a film whose title makes clear its primary focus. And despite a blistering performance from Fassbender, his eyes radiating granite resolve, Hunger’s final twenty minutes primarily amount to apolitical martyrdom-passion-play sore-gazing, replete with clunky death symbolism (flapping birds!) that’s at odds with the preceding blunt realism.
(2008 New York Film Festival)