Posted April 23, 2009 by William Dunmyer in Uncategorized

Hunger: Courageous Artistic Effort That Ultimately Fails

“Hunger,” from avant-garde British artist Steve McQueen, wins my vote for Worst Film of 2009 so far. I very much appreciate that McQueen tried for something different, using minimalist techniques. We need more filmmakers to take chances like this.

But unfortunately McQueen, who is making his feature-film debut, didn’t succeed at making his unusual approach compelling. During the second half of the film especially, it was difficult to stay in the theater. I felt I was watching paint dry.

McQueen’s intention was to isolate a set of core issues and not allow anything else to distract from them. The topic was the Irish Republican Army. McQueen’s particular interests concern the politics of that struggle, questions about revolutionary strategy, and the fortitude required to undertake extreme acts such as committing murder or starving oneself to death. I would agree with McQueen that these are interesting questions. But he didn’t find a way to explore them in an interesting way. It is very difficult to make minimalism work, as it so easily can become boring. And this is what happened to McQueen’s project. It is for the most part plain old boring.

“Hunger” depicts the last days of Bobby Sands, who became famous around the world in 1981 when he starved himself to death in a British prison. A member of the IRA, Sands was a committed “terrorist.” But he and his comrades insisted that they weren’t the same as typical criminals. They demanded that Britain consider political crimes as a separate category. Their goal appears not to have been to get lighter sentences. Rather their main concern was the dignity of the prisoners.

Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher refused and dug her heels in (I am glad that she did, incidentally). She is heard several times in voice-over, delivering trenchant, concise speeches deploring the epidemic of violence in Northern Ireland. Her refusal to create a category of political crime produced a range of protests from IRA prisoners, including a particularly revolting one involving the prisoners spreading their own feces all over the walls of their cells. When this failed, they resorted to self-starvation. Sands was the first to die, but several followed before the hunger strike was called off.

Sands’ slow death fills the second half of the film. McQueen tries for oblique poetry, several times cutting from Sands’ death throes to a flock of birds taking flight. Again, I like the attempt at cinematic poetry, but I found most of McQueen’s moves cliche and unenlightening. McQueen is an artist with the guts to take risks, however, and that is a joy to see. His next project may well be more interesting. Thus he is someone worth watching, at least for the next couple of years.

McQueen’s one exceptional gift is cinematography. Almost every scene in “Hunger” had a mise-en-scene that was stimulating and original. Perhaps he is really meant to be a cinematographer, letting someone else work out the story, the editing, and the overall mission of the project.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.