It's always interesting to go back and see the early days of a director or actor, before they hit it big, while they were still struggling to get recognition and work. Hunger is the film that put both Steve McQueen (director of the Best Picture winning 12 Years a Slave), and Michael Fassbender (who these days needs no introduction) on the map. It is a grueling picture, difficult to watch at times, but it is exactly that fact that makes it so interesting. You can feel both the director and actor pouring everything they have into it. Fassbender in particulardropped down to 125lbs at one point, and you can definitely tell. The dedication from both actor and director is something to be witnessed.
From the beginning, you can tell that the film is one that speaks with it's visuals more than with words. There is a short text introduction at the beginning of the movie about the basic plot, which revolves around a series of prison protests in the late 70s from Irish Republican prisoners who want political status, but after that, there is very little speaking. The first real back and forth conversation doesn't happen until at least 10 minutes in, and after that, not until the 30 minute mark. Primarily we come to an understanding about what the prisoners are doing by simply watching it, seeing the disgusting conditions that they live in and the vulgar things they do to protest against their treatment, such as not wearing uniforms and not bathing. An early scene involves Fassbender's character, Bobby Sands, being brought out naked from his cell, beaten by guards, dragged through the prison to the bathroom, and forcibly being bathed and having his hair cut before he is dragged back again. It's shocking to see, the kinds of things that these men were willing to go through to protest their treatment, and it's communicated extremely well through the visuals and the setting.
That is what I get most out of this movie, McQueen's ability to communicate through strictly visuals. Many movies and TV shows are guilty of using exposition dumps to communicate information to the viewer, so that they can understand what's about to happen, or what has happened. Here, we get the exact opposite, with spoken dialogue being almost nonexistent or inconsequential, with the visuals being the key to knowing what's going on. He shows us that time is passing by healing a prisoners injuries, he tells us that their negotiations have been working through showing us improved housing. But we also understand the hatred that the government still has for them, as a SWAT team is called in to beat the prisoners nearly to death as cavity searches are forcibly performed. All of this is a wonderful feat to pull off for a directorial debut, and the actors, particularly Fassbender, help with this immensely. Acting is noticed when it's taken to it's extremes, but sometimes it's truly in the nuances, the small things, that an actor can succeed the most. Fassbender uses everything he has to be Bobby Sands, down to the little things that matter, like the small smile pulling at his lips even as he lays in his cell, bleeding and defeated. Where he really distinguishes himself though, is in one of the movie's most memorable scenes, a single, 17-minute long take of a conversation between Sands and a priest brought in to dissuade him from his hunger strike. It truly is an amazing scene, I never thought that a camera sitting perfectly still, watching two men talk for nearly 20 minutes straight could be such an enthralling thing. It has more dialogue than the rest of the movie combined, and serves almost as a break point between the beginning and ending of the movie. It's that dense, that it could be regarded as the 2nd act almost all on it's own, it's a powerful, exciting, well shot and well acted scene that completely deserves the reputation it has.
Afterwards, his hunger strike begins in earnest, and it is a sight to behold. Watching Sands as his body becomes more and more emaciated, diseased, and frail is quite an experience. It's almost terrifying seeing how far he's willing to go for his cause, which again Fassbender gets across with stark clarity. McQueen in unflinching in showing us the excruciating pain of starvation, as Sands body deteriorates, the camera becomes looser, less focused, and less steady. We feel as though we are experiencing it to some degree, with his hallucinations sometimes overlaying the screen, and his eyes unable to focus on anything due to his bodies complete breakdown. The director is careful to not make this a political movie, neither side are particularly displayed as good or bad, and Sands isn't made into a heroic figure. We just watch the facts, the intense pain that he and 9 other men put themselves through, and can't help but marvel at it even if we disagree with it. This is what men are capable of when they are utterly committed to a cause, they can willingly starve themselves to death to get their message across. I can't think of a single thing that was said out loud in the entire 3rd act, and maybe that's because there really are no words. There's nothing that any one of them could have said that would have added to the spectacle, what we see is projecting strong enough of a message that there is absolutely no need for words. Watching Bobby Sands slowly die of starvation is a cinematic experience that is going to stick with me for a very long time.