Hunger takes us inside the 1981 hunger strike by IRA prisoners in British custody at the notorious Maze Prison. But don’t go expecting another drama about the Troubles à la In the Name of the Father, with emotional speechifying and a tidy character arc. McQueen, whose background is in installation art involving film projection, tackles the subject with formal rigor. In the nearly dialogue-free first third of the film, a guard (Graham) is gradually worn down by the violence that is part of his job, and a new prisoner (Milligan) is indoctrinated into the awful realities of prison life.
The center third of the film is a remarkable dialogue between militant leader Bobby Sands (Fassbender) and a priest (Cunningham); they debate the merits of martyrdom as Bobby prepares for a hunger strike that he fully expects will kill him. And in the unrelenting final third, we watch as Bobby starves himself to death.
McQueen’s austere approach and vague hints of transcendence recall Bresson’s A Man Escaped. Audiences can’t help but make connections between Hunger and Guantanamo, just as early audiences focused on A Man Escaped’s World War II context. But both films are about something larger: the body and soul tested by captivity. Hunger refuses easy emotional catharsis, but its unsettling intensity stays with you far longer than the usual platitudes about the human spirit.