Monday, April 20, 2009

The sobering punishment of 'Hunger'

You'd rather go naked than wear the clothes you've been given. You smear the cement walls of your cell with your own excrement. You've run a gauntlet, screaming and fighting as merciless guards beat you with their batons. After being moved to more commodious quarters, you reject even this minimal increase in comfort. You smash everything in your new cell.

Having exhausted every other means of protest, you stop eating. A hunger strike is your last weapon. You've said it in other ways before, but now you must say it again: The prison will not take your spirit. The guards will not control you. You will deny the terms of your imprisonment even it results in your death. It is only through your refusal that the system will know it has failed and that you can be free.

Those are the kinds of things we're asked to experience -- at least in a cinematic way -- in director Steve McQueen's hash and harrowing "Hunger," now playing at the Regency Theatre at Tamarac Square. McQueen, a visual artist who has forayed into film, has given us a stark portrait of the imprisonment and death of Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican Army man. Sands died in HM Prison Maze in Belfast in 1981 after 66 days without eating or drinking. He was 27.

Oddly -- and, I think, wisely -- McQueen does not delve into the background of the IRA battle against the British. Although we learn something about what the prisoners want -- to be treated as political prisoners rather than criminals -- we're thrust into a world that's radically separated from outside concerns. Almost from the beginning, the prison environment takes over. Sands doesn't even appear until after the first act, which focuses on a newly admitted prisoner who's subjected to the torments of the place: its sounds, its stench, its absolute denial of the prisoners' humanity.

I don't suppose I need to tell you that the movie is difficult to watch. It's as close to the experience of these prisoners as you'd ever want to get. The only relief arrives roughly in the middle of the movie when McQueen stages a lengthy conversation (most of it presented in one take) between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham). The two chide each other and exchange news. They smoke. It's as if they're warming up before getting down to business, discussing whether Bobby is upholding the highest moral standards or acting the deluded fool.

Fassbender lost a lot of weight to show us Bobby's hunger-strike decline; he conducts one of those crazy immersion exercises that sometimes seize the imaginations of actors, goading them toward new levels of daring that -- upon reflection -- make us wonder about the sanity of the enterprise. Fassbender's performance raises questions similar to those surrounding Bobby: Is the actor engaging in an act of artistic heroism or is he a little cracked?

Aside from the exchange between Bobby and the priest -- a kind of mini-play within the movie -- "Hunger" contains little dialogue. Still, it's anything but quiet. McQueen effectively uses the sounds of the prison, as well as its silences, most aptly called "dead" silences. These are the kind of silences you can hear, the kind that have weight.

For all the graphic displays of British brutality, "Hunger" doesn't exactly take sides. One of the guards (Stuart Graham) shows us the impact of perpetuating so much violence. He soaks his hands to relieve swelling from use of his fists. It's a simple idea, but one we seldom consider: The human hand wasn't made for punching. After each brutal session, the guard stands alone in the prison courtyard, smoking and possibly reflecting on what he's doing to others and to himself. Still, he's vicious beyond anything the situation possibly could require. A close-up of a youthful looking guard who just has participated in a beating tells a more obvious story. The man's lips begin to quiver. He'll probably never sleep well again. He's just a kid.

Moral questions arise without being uttered. They kick us hard in the stomach. They're obvious, but essential. At what point -- and why -- do we surrender our humanity? Yes, the movie brings Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo to mind. The British justified their extremism because they believed they were fighting terrorists.

I'm always torn by movies as graphic as "The Hunger." I keep asking myself what I'm gaining from watching all this cruelty. I then remind myself that that's probably not the point. Such cruelty has been (and is) part of our world -- or so McQueen seems to be saying. He demands that we see it. Concentrating our attention on Sands' prison experience, he locks the door and throws away the key. What we do next is up to us. Do we take the time to measure our own consciences or do we go about our business? Do we shake our heads at what we perceive as the futility of Bobby's persistence or do we acknowledge its worth? McQueen isn't arrogant enough to answer those questions for us, which is part of the reason his film is so undeniably powerful.

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