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Pound of Flesh as Bargaining Chip

Hunger (2008)

IFC Films

Winner of "Camera d’or" at Cannes Film Festival, British film artist Steve McQueen’s feature debut, “Hunger,” is perhaps the best cinematic treatment yet of the Irish Troubles. Indeed, just as Terry George and Jim Sheridan’s “Some Mother’s Son,” Mr. McQueen’s film revolves around the 1981 hunger strike led by the late Irish Republican Army volunteer and British parliament member Bobby Sands. But it ultimately achieves radically different results. While Mr. George’s beat-you-over-the-head approach was instantly forgettable, Mr. McQueen’s abstract yet visceral take on the same events truly gets under the skin.

In spite of the involvement of playwright Enda Walsh, “Hunger” actually has little plot to speak of. Mr. Sands’s story loosely serves as a framework that joins together a series of filmic gallery installations that graphically explore the fragility of the human body. There’s a plethora of open wounds, naked flesh, blood, and bodily refuse. As the film constantly shifts its protagonist and switches its sympathy to a different side, it also transforms its theme from the dehumanizing prison existence, to disturbing prison violence, to heated debate on religion and martyrdom, to an existential hunger strike. Particularly interesting indeed is the film’s depiction of the last six weeks of Sands’s life, as actor Michael Fassbender goes through the kind of extreme physical transformation that Christian Bale previously undertook in “The Machinist.”

Mr. McQueen’s powerful visual meditation on flesh and blood nearly makes up for the film’s serious lack of cohesion or narrative structure. Fortunately, subject matter concerning terrorism and prisoner abuse happens to be extremely timely. “Hunger” allows Americans to thoroughly examine and evaluate the causes and effects of terrorism rationally from a distance without any emotional investment. History has indeed repeated itself, and “Hunger” suggests that the never-ending cycle of violence and savagery is part of human nature. The I.R.A. is no different from al Qaeda, and Americans are no different from the Brits. While many films about the Irish Troubles aren’t exactly pro-I.R.A., they are undisputedly anti-Britain. In a roundabout way, “Hunger” shows that everyone is complicit in the perpetuation of violence.


Opens on March 20, 2009 in New York and on Oct. 31 in Britain.

Directed by Steve McQueen; written by Enda Walsh and Mr. McQueen; director of photography, Sean Bobbitt; edited by Joe Walker; music by David Holmes with Leo Abrahams; production designer, Tom McCullagh; produced by Laura Hastings-Smith and Robin Gutch; released by IFC Films. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and is rated 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands), Liam Cunningham (Father Dominic Moran), Stuart Graham (Raymond Lohan), Brian Milligan (Davey Gillen) and Liam McMahon (Gerry Campbell).


I can’t remember the last time my hair stood on end after being frightened. I’m hoping that streak ends once Fangoria rolls this film out in the coming weeks.

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