Published on September 11th, 2018 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Hunger – A Triumph of Pain and Art
It’s been 10 years since Steve McQueen’s brutal film, Hunger, a film that looks at pain, politics, and the moral ambiguity of right and wrong.
Can cinema truly capture the essence of pain?
I mean, of course films can depict the experience of physical or emotional pain via mise-en-scene. We’ve all seen horror films; we’ve all cringed at the sight of ghastly bodily harm and imaged ourselves going through similar tribulations. Yet, upon rewatching Steve McQueen’s 2008 feature film debut Hunger, I was reminded of the striking distinction between depictions of pain and painful depictions in film. The former is all too familiar to audiences, yet the latter is almost impossible to explain or define in any coherent way. How can a film’s craft itself be painful, in which every cut, every fleeting moment, every subtle gesture does not only evoke despair but also perpetuates and embraces it?
I’m not sure even director Steve McQueen can put together a satisfying answer to that question with mere words. Instead, he provides the most exquisite mosaic of human suffering and self-destruction entirely through a visual language, whose small nuances and signifiers of cerebral anguish carry an equal weight in the film’s abrasive moments of explicit violence. To McQueen, pain is not just a brutal beatdown. To him, pain is an abusive prison guard having a dead-eyed smoke after soaking his bloody knuckles, pain is the crushing paradox of self-harm in the name of a political cause. And he forces us to take in his mosaic of pain, to become absorbed in it. That is why Hunger, which depicts the brutal conflict between IRA prisoners and their British captors, is so much more than your boiler-plate historical drama.
Over ten years old and still an impeccable, visionary feat, the film is not so much about a singular protagonist as much as a singular time and place. In 1980, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (whose voice is directly inserted into this film for necessary and highly cinematic context) demanded that IRA members convicted of politically-charged terrorism be denied political status. Instead of being sent back to their homeland, the prisoners were contained within British walls where their captors were all too proud of their clandestine thirst for vengeance. In a particularly haunting scene, guards adorned in riot gear zealously beat their clubs against their thick, transparent shields and scream battle cries before the naked prisoners are sent down an assembly line of vitriolic abuse. Yet, we also see a brutal slaying of a high-ranking British guard (the same abusive one we see smoking earlier in the film) as an IRA member casually shoots him in the back of the head while visiting his mother. She simply sits catatonic, face drenched with blood. The juxtaposition of these acts of violence, their close proximity to each other in the film, constructs a brooding moral ambiguity. It forms a depiction of the pain of not knowing which actions are justifiable and which ones are evil. The ultimate, crushing catch-22 of the human condition.
Also notable is that McQueen’s camera has an unprecedented objectivity—or should I say omnipotence. Instead of choosing sides and awkwardly moralizing about the plight of the underdogs, he explores every nook and cranny of the situation, offering empathy to both sides and, in doing so, tearing its audience into conflicting, emotional shreds. And as the film’s final act zeroes in on the pure suffering, the self-sacrifice of Bobby’s (Michael Fassbender) hunger strike, it has the poise to both romanticize and critique his potential fetishization of death. As his friend—a pragmatic priest played brilliantly by Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham—points out, Bobby may be in love with pain itself more than his own country. In making the ultimate sacrifice for his homeland, McQueen asks us whether or not it was actually quite selfish without shoving an answer down our throats. This level of restraint makes it an even MORE painful viewing experience; in the end, there are no answers, no easy ways out, no epiphanies. We are left to revel in the pain and sorrow of a socio-political paradox. For McQueen, answers are not as important as emotions; the only answers we get are the vastly different ones playing in each characters’ mind.
This film unpacks pain and deconstructs how it works in the human psyche. It analyzes the roots of pain, making the audience understand each character’s pain without forcing them to take sides. It also crafts an experience of pain that does not simply exist in a singular scene or moment. Rather, the pain builds the way a wound swells, throbbing through every consecutive shot and bleeding deeper than any film I’ve ever seen. It accomplishes a rare feat; it makes pain achingly beautiful. And after 10 years, it stands alone as the most riveting historical drama that is not primarily about history, but rather the philosophy that is signified through history. And that philosophy is absorbed into the film’s form itself: the idea that there is no perfect, divine clarity in life. Tragically, all we have are our perceptions of ourselves. As the film so delicately signifies, the partisan lines of, say, British versus IRA obscure for most the inescapable fact that we are all human beings. And we all have the same biology, the same nervous system. We all feel pain. However, only a select few feel Bobby’s sacrificial pain, the soothing kind, the kind that makes you die with a smile on your face. Is that beauty or is it tragedy? Is there even a difference?