Historical dramas often suffer from a certain stodgy remove, but in Hunger, conceptual artist and first-time feature filmmaker Steve McQueen takes his audience deep inside a particular place and time: Her Majesty's Prison Maze in Northern Ireland, circa 1981. Hunger is a mostly dialogue-free recollection of the various ways Irish prisoners tried to convince the Thatcher government to grant them status as political prisoners, not terrorists. The first half of the film follows one twitchy guard, one new prisoner, and one old hand as they endure day after day of shit-smeared walls, secret messages, and routine beatings. The second half follows Bobby Sands (played by the remarkable Michael Fassbender) as he launches a new strategy to draw attention to his cause: a chain of hunger strikes, led by himself, with new prisoners to join in every two weeks. Linking the two halves of the film is a roughly 10-minute dialogue scene between Sands and his priest, followed by a roughly five-minute monologue by Sands. Both are shot in single, static takes.
The visceral impact of Hunger's first half is difficult to overstate. With minimal explanation, McQueen strands viewers in dank rooms populated by naked men who've made their bodies and their surroundings intentionally repellent. Then, just when audiences have begun to orient themselves, McQueen springs the 15-minute conversation, which supplies the action in Hunger's opening—and the painful starvation that follows—with a hero and a purpose. The film's structure feels a little overdetermined at times: McQueen wields his directorial control so tightly that at a certain point, his long takes start to look more like a stunt than the ideal way to convey information. But honestly, when a director has the eye and the feel of a McQueen, he earns the leeway to go down some blind alleys. Hunger may be criticized for being willfully arty, or for reducing a complex political situation to a broadly allegorical vision of martyrdom, but it's never less than visually stunning. It's a rare filmmaker who can find the poetry in snow melting on bloody knuckles, or in the reflections in a puddle of piss.