Sometimes people say a movie is "hard to watch." It's a weird thing to say. What, exactly, makes a movie "hard to watch?" Is it the film's emotional or psychological content, or perhaps a muddy or uncomfortable visual scheme? (If so, based on the latter, I would say 'Pandorum' is hard to watch.) If it makes you squirm, does that mean it's "hard to watch?"
Well, I think I've figured it out, at least in the case of Steve McQueen's brilliant debut film, 'Hunger.'
'Hunger' is the story of a 1981 hunger strike by members of the Provisional Irish Republic Army (IRA) at a hopeless, Byzantine British prison known as The Maze. Regardless of where your sympathy lies (and, truth be told, the IRA did some pretty nasty stuff – some of it represented here), there are some very obvious human rights violations going on here. The movie is tough, gritty, but also beautifully framed and photographed by McQueen (a former video artist).
The first time I saw 'Hunger' (at the 2008 New York Film Festival), I was left cold by the seeming lack of narrative focus. At the beginning of the film we follow a prison officer (Stuart Graham) who works at The Maze and deals with the IRA prisoners. Not only does he have to endure the emotional strain of his job, but he's also edgy because IRA hit men have been targeting the prison officers. (If they saw the guards drying their uniforms outside, the hit men would come inside and kill everybody.) The movie then shifts focus to a young IRA prisoner (Brian Milligan), and his arrival at the jail gives us a firsthand glimpse at the horrible manner in which the prisoners at The Maze were treated.
And then towards the end of the film, we switch focus again to Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), the most famous of the IRA prisoners and the one who designed the hunger strike. This is the most harrowing and emotionally gripping portion of the movie, the one section that's "hard to watch," as we see Sands grapple with the weighty moral issues of a hunger strike and also watch him physically deteriorate.
Watching 'Hunger' again, I felt the splintered narrative was the only way to fully tell this terrible story. I even appreciated a scene, late in the movie, where Sands talks to a priest (Liam Cunningham) about the spiritual repercussions of going through with a hunger strike. It's a single, unbroken 11-minute scene, and on the first go-around I felt it was the ultimate example of telling, not showing. (It is, after all, a movie.) But this time, I grasped its starkness and simplicity. It cut through all the cinematic hokum that could have stood in the way and, much like the rest of the movie, is a stark and brutally realistic scene that also manages to be heartbreaking and beautiful.
Its beauty, however, doesn't take away from its brutality. For a first-time director, McQueen shoots the film with an assured hand. It's quite a debut. It is a movie that is "hard to watch." But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't watch it. You should.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB disc is Region "A" locked. The Criterion Collection release has a spine number of #504. That's about it.
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (preserving the original aspect ratio of 2.39:1) is pretty spotless; a superb presentation of a superb film.
From the accompanying booklet: "Approved by director Steve McQueen, this new high-definition digital transfer was created from the original 2-perforation 35 mm negative, which was scanned on an ARRISCAN pin-register scanner at 2K resolution."
All in all, it's a crackling good presentation. Detail is excellent, particularly on surface textures. (There's a great scene where some art is made on the cell walls by, er, human waste). Colors are wonderful too, drab when they need to be (like the faded linoleum tiles of the prison), striking where appropriate. Additionally, black levels are deep and bottomless, skin tones are right on (even when Bobby Sands' color is draining out of him) and there aren't any buggy technical issues to point out.
This is a wonderful transfer, through and through.
Equally impressive is the disc's English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. For a prison to really come to life, it needs that extra layer of atmosphere.
You can hear the prison, and really feel it, thanks to the cries of the captives, the sound the guards' shoes make against the linoleum tile, the rush of urine (or spray of water), or the buzzing of a fly. Everything is rendered beautifully and takes full advantage of the surround sound. Ambience is premium. It's a subtle and nuanced track but one that won't blow the doors off your living room.
Dialogue reproduction is excellent and well prioritized (although those who have trouble cutting through the occasionally thorny Irish accents can always flip on the subtitles). The score, too, co-authored by David Holmes (of the 'Ocean's' movies) sounds gorgeous here.
While the English DTS-HD is the only audio option, there are subtitles in English, for what it's worth. When the sound is this good, you only need one audio option.
There are a typically strong crop of extras on this disc, but all are present on the two-disc DVD version with the only Blu-ray exclusive being the "timeline" that's now a staple on Criterion's high definition releases.
Steve McQueen's debut film 'Hunger' is undeniably "hard to watch." That said, it's also highly recommended. Not only is it a beautiful film about an extremely different period in very recent history, but it's got some wonderful performances and really will move you. Some flawless A/V and a host of great bonus features make this one a no-brainer. It's a disc as well done as the film.