First Films: Steve McQueen’s “Hunger”

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This is the fourth in a short series of posts on directors’ first films—films often overshadowed by the blockbusters that come after them but that catch their makers at an important stage of evolution while providing plenty delights of their own.

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When I sit down to write I seldom think about what it’s costing me, monetarily. Two dollars for a cup of coffee. The wages I could be earning at a “real job” for the four, or three, or two, or one… hours spent hunched over my laptop. The cost of that laptop, while we’re at it, divided into the number of days used—my last one made it five years. Lately I’ve been working on short stories. In other words, little to lose, little to gain. Monetarily.

Not so with directors and their films. Take a record-breakingly expensive movie like 2007’s Spider-Man 3 directed by Sam Raimi,which cost $258 million to make and in turn drew over three times that in box offices worldwide. But even more modest films—with their actors, crews, sets, equipment, and who knows what else?—cost a hell of a lot to offer up to your gaze. David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), mentioned under the “Micro budget” heading of Wikipedia’s low-budget films page, “cost only $10,000 to produce.” It’s easy to imagine the pressures numbers like those might impose on artistic liberty and decision-making. As a writer, thank God, I’m as free to produce an “ant” as I am a “car.” “Mansion” costs me no more than “egg.” Monetarily.

First films, I’m finding, represent special risks. Despite its monster budget, something like Spider-Man 3 is a surer bet than, say, Bottle Rocket; forging a reputation and staking a cinematic claim are not Raimi’s concerns they way they are Wes Anderson’s. Nor is Raimi anxious, probably, about receiving the funding he needs to fulfill his vision.

But directors’ debut films often take narrative, formal, and stylistic risks, as well. Whether these risks are the products of deliberate choices—as claims of originality, maybe—or the missteps of inexperienced artists, or some golden combination of both, it can be hard to say. Not that directors, after they’ve established themselves, can’t use their prestige to take bolder and bolder risks. P.T. Anderson does this. But sometimes filmmakers’ later work lacks the excitement of their early attempts. Jane Campion? Perhaps. After all, mastery is cousin to tameness, isn’t it?

So how to account for a first film like British director Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), arriving fully formed, with both mastery and risk? McQueen’s debut takes viewers inside Northern Ireland’s infamous Maze Prison in 1981 during the Troubles—the violent dispute (late 1960s-1998) between the territory’s Irish nationalists or republicans and its British-identifying unionists or loyalists. After a cycle of point of view shifts, the film arrives at the historical figure it’s “about”: Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) member who led a hunger strike in response to the British government revoking the political status of all paramilitary prisoners. No spoilers here: after 66 days without eating Sands dies, the first of 10 strikers to do so, ending an act of endurance that attracted the media attention McQueen recalls being struck by as an eleven-year-old in London.

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Like McQueen’s most recent film, the 2013 winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave, his first feature film takes on the important and fraught task of depicting the collision between an imperial system of oppression and incredible act of human will. But the Troubles are close to home for McQueen, in place and time—“It was a situation of What happened in our backyard?” as McQueen says in a “making of” documentary feature on the film’s Criterion Collection DVD release. “It’s all about right underneath your bed.” Liam Cunningham, who plays Father Dominic Moran, hints at the risk involved in “tackl[ing] this particular subject, and to film it in Belfast.” “You’re not making it easy for yourself,” he says. “And it shouldn’t be easy. It should be difficult.” As a young American watching Hunger in 2014, I confess ignorance to all but the most basic details about the Troubles. But almost every interviewer I’ve read wants to know not only about McQueen’s choice of subject matter but also how he navigated the tricky political no man’s land between the conflict’s two sides, which remain fiercely opposed even today. And when I consider the challenge McQueen embraced with 12 Years a Slave, I get a better sense of his boldness.

But as Chris Darke points out in his Criterion essay, Hunger is only one of “numerous cinematic treatments” of the controversial conflict, though film “aims beyond the more conventional historical approaches.” And uneducated as I may be about Irish-British history, I was immediately arrested (pun not intended) by McQueen’s artistic unpredictability, as clear, measured images of prison officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) preparing for work give way to the dark, tight shots of Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) beginning the first days of his six-year sentence. While McQueen, who spent the fifteen years before 2008 making short art films, is a genius of the long take a la Béla Tarr—I liked the 3-minute take of a prison officer sweeping urine down a long corridor almost as much as the well-noted 23-minute conversation between Sands and Father Dominic that serves as the film’s centerpiece—he derives equal tension from choppy frenetic scenes, like the one in which a group of prison officers drag a resistant naked prisoner through the Maze, battering him, shearing his hair and beard, and forcing him into a bathtub, where they roll him through the water and scrub him with a broom. (The ineffectiveness of the prisoners’ “no wash” strike prompted Sands to plan the hunger strike.)

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The hunger strike itself goes by more quickly than I had anticipated, occupying only the film’s final 20 or so minutes, with Fassbender becoming so gaunt and emaciated that the prison guards have to use a metal frame contraption to keep the weight of his blanket off his body. Says the film’s producer, Robin Gutch: “Steve is always going to have an unusual approach, an exceptionally strong visual language, and also probably not go down a conventional sort of drama structural route.” More than once during my first watch I wondered, Is that him? Is that Bobby Sands?—only to find out no, he hadn’t been introduced yet. While this delaying does create its own kind of dramatic tension, at least in theory, what comes before Sands’s entrance is so utterly compelling that in reality you forget what you were expecting. And this proves the director’s assertion that he’s not giving us a film about politics but one about humans we want to care about—whether they are prison officers checking their cars for bombs or anonymous prisoners chatting with loved ones. Hunger, but not only Sands’s literal starvation. As McQueen told one interviewer curious about his flouting of convention: “I’m not naïve to that, absolutely not,” McQueen answers. “But at the same time, it’s one of those things where I just wanted to sort of make the strongest film I could possibly do. That was it.”

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