dir: Steve McQueen
When I heard that there was this apparently really cool film that was going to come out, and that it was directed by Steve McQueen, my first question was: “Isn’t he dead?” My next question was “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck had nothing better to do with its fucking time?”
The answers to both questions, surprisingly enough, are “Yes” and “Not much.” Steve McQueen is some artist, not the classic actor from Great Escape, The Getaway and Bullit. The car did most of the acting in Bullit, I admit, but no, McQueen is some other guy which doesn’t mean that the original McQueen is doing a Tupac Shakur from beyond the grave, releasing stuff despite the minor inconvenience of being dead.
The one thing I’ve never heard or seen in any of the reviews of this flick, which have been uniformly positive, is that the film would actually make me sick. I’m not, as is my wont, exaggerating or embellishing like I usually do. In the last fifteen or so minutes of the flick, when Michael Fassbender, who plays Bobby Sands, really earns his keep, the image of his emaciated and lesion/sore covered body comes up on the screen.
When I saw this, I was overwhelmed by a feverish nausea, and I actually fainted. It’s the only time this has ever happened to me. I literally hit the ground. I still have a bruise and a swollen bit above my eyebrow where I hit a coffee table on my journey to the floor. No drugs or booze played any role in this. I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.
It’s the strangest thing. Even as the feeling was mounting, and I was telling myself that it was not real, and shouldn’t be affecting me, another part of me was saying, “Actually, it is real. This actor really has starved himself to the point of emaciation, and you’re physically feeling ill because what you’re seeing is so awful.”
This is not an extreme film in another other sense of the word: I mean that it’s not a transgressive flick, like that torture porn Saw stuff or some of the more repugnant flicks by Japanese lunatic Takeshi Miike, like Ichi the Killer or the Dead or Alive flicks. The subject matter is difficult all the same, since it is trying to give a realistic, if not stylised, depiction of the treatment certain prisoners enjoyed at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Britain back in the 1980s.
It might have been the Queen’s pleasure that kept them incarcerated, but their real unwavering opponent was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Their crimes were real; this isn’t anything like In the Name of the Father, where our protagonists are innocent people railroaded by a cruel and rigged system. These prisoners are more or less guilty of what they are accused of, but their argument is that, being loyal soldiers of the IRA, they deserve to be treated almost as prisoners of war instead of criminal prisoners. Special prisoners, as opposed to the riff-raff.
It might seem like a bullshit distinction, but it meant a hell of a lot to these guys, as is obvious by the lengths they go to in order to convince Maggie to back down and re-establish their statement and treatment as political prisoners. Anyone who knows anything about Maggie, whether it’s the few people of the Falklands, the coalminers, the Irish, anyone who remembers her remembers that she would rather see the entirety of Great Britain reduced to cinders rather than ever back down on anything.
The protests of the prisoners at the Maze prison involve refusing to wear prisoner’s garb, which means they’re naked most of the time, refusing to bathe or maintain any personal hygiene, which seems like more of a punishment on their fellow prisoners than the guards themselves, and some other curious rituals involving some of the only weapons they possess: their own piss and shit.
It’s disgusting, but this is after all a prison flick. Now, it’s not a prison flick about shower rape, gang affiliations or sharpening toothbrushes into shivs in order to shank the first guy from a rival crew who makes eye contact with you. The guards are the enemy, and these fuckers don’t play.
We don’t get to know the guards in any fashion apart from the impressions the director wants to give us of some of them. The first person we see is a guy who seems like a nice enough chap, who winces when he lowers his bruised and bloody knuckles into a water-filled sink. We find out soon enough why they’re bloody. Later on there’s a scene where he smokes a cigarette out in the cold, though his shirt is covered in sweat, and we wonder (not very much) as to why he’s so hot and sweaty and can’t feel the cold.
There’s a scene of incredible brutality where the guards form a kind of honour guard in full riot gear, forcing prisoners to run a gauntlet whilst battering the crap out of them literally. It’s so brutal that one of the younger guards is wracked with sobbing, and cries where the other guards can’t see him.
Boo fucking hoo, cocksucker. Yeah, you’re doing it real tough.
As such, you may have gotten the impression that the film doesn’t have much of a plot, and it certainly doesn’t. McQueen is an artist in the installation sense of the word, more so than a director, and as such his intention is to created vivid images that tell a narrative without recourse to too much dialogue and certainly no voice over or literal narration. The last part of the flick is virtually dialogue-free, but I’ll get to that later.
If I can be so boring as to compartmentalise the film unnecessarily, the flick has three essential parts: at first it follows a new prisoner who enters the prison and is inducted into the good life. This includes all their forms of political protest, from the smearing of shit on the walls to the saving up of urine in order to make it flow into the hallways connecting the cells. Moments of escape include playing with a fly or feeling the snow falling through a grated window. This is where the guards truly shine. We watch the guards brutalise a bunch of prisoners, and then one of them comes to the fore, who has a chat with his parents.
This is the infamous Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), in jail for various IRA related activities.
The second sequence involves an amazing conversation between Sands and a priest, which only has one edit. It’s an amazing scene, and I don’t want to find out how long it took them to get it right, because it’s such a strong scene. The first part of it involves some sparkling repartee between them as they establish their Catholic bona fides. Then Sands makes clear his intention to take a certain course of action, which the frustrated priest tries to talk him out of. Lots of smoking ensues, and then Sands explains, through personal anecdote, why he’s the man for the job.
Why he’s the one to see it through, to the bitter end. The anecdote he tells is meant to clarify for the priest, and obviously to us, why he’s a decider, the one who makes decisions that no-one else wants to make. He’s not a consensus builder, not a negotiator. He’s a doer, not a do-gooder.
I’m convinced. The story is pretty compelling, referring to a cross country race crossed with the religious tensions, a hurt foal, and a tough decision. It’s an incredible scene, both actors do a tremendous job in this amazing sequence. It truly does have to be seen to be believed.
Sands makes it clear to the priest that his actions aren’t aimed at Maggie or her Tory Government: His actions are aimed at the Leadership, which presumably refers to the IRA – Sinn Fein leadership, with the intention of spurring them to action.
There’s no nobility in this self-sacrifice. Still, what happens to him is quite horrifying.
The last section deals with the last weeks of Sands’ life as he slowly starves to death. A scene where a prison doctor is describing to Sands’ parents what is happening to his body is horrifying enough, but the sight of Fassbender’s emaciated body, covered in bed sores and other horrific lesions, is the stuff of nightmares (and fainting spells, obviously). He fades further and further away, unable even to focus upon anything except his own fading light.
You cannot doubt Bobby Sands’ commitment to his cause. You can’t really doubt Michael Fassbender’s commitment either, much as you might want to.
The onscreen notes at the end of the film represent what changes (and ironies, such as Sands’ being elected to Parliament just a while prior to his death) the hunger strikers wrought, as well as the cost of life (nearly twenty guards were murdered during this time), in a time where the loss of life on both sides, innocent and less so, was horrific.
The flick doesn’t contend that there was anything heroic about Sands’ life or death, but that the experience of starving to death is a pretty horrible one. It’s hard not to think that the flick is inherently pro-IRA, but that would be unnecessary and a mistake, anyway. I could care less about either side of this conflict, thinking as I do that one version of Christian killing another version of Christian is even more retarded than one version of Invisible Entity in the Sky compelling adherents to kill other versions of Invisible Entity in the Sky. It’s all deeply, deeply retarded. But watching someone die for his beliefs is still harrowing, no matter how misguided the beliefs are.
It’s a tremendous work of art, but it doesn’t make for an easy viewing experience. It’s put together in a phenomenal fashion, and demands an attentive audience, because the storytelling is neither easy nor complicated. Because it’s all up there for us to see, all the intricate details of the horrors of confinement at the Queen’s pleasure and Maggie’s intense displeasure.
Don’t get complacent, either. Baroness Thatcher still lives, the monstrous wretch. She could still destroy us all, somehow, before she follows Sands into that dark arbor.
9 times this is the least appealing prison flick since Ghosts… Of the Civil Dead out of 10
“You should see the other guy.” - Hunger