Set in 1981, the film begins as republican prisoners in the Maze’s infamous H-blocks stage their “blanket” and “no wash” protests; demonstrating against the government’s denial of their status as political detainees, they refuse to don prison garb, wearing only blankets and subsisting in a self-imposed state of filth. In the early section of the film, McQueen lingers over the specific details of the republicans' imprisonment, turning such gross out gags as the men storing contraband in their rectums and smearing shit over the cell walls into the stuff of gleeful fetish. As the tensions in the prison mount, he stages the guard’s mistreatment of the prisoners as rousing set-pieces. In an admittedly thrilling sequence, a feral Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) makes his first appearance - bearded, long-haired and nude - as a whole squadron of guards drag him down and give him a forced haircut and shave. Later, following a minor prison riot, the prisoners are made to run a gauntlet of truncheon-wielding guards before undergoing a full cavity search. In these sequences, the contradictory import of the director’s method is in full play: it may be necessary to underline these gruesome details to illustrate the ways in which the men are bodily debased (and it may also account for some pulse-pounding moments of cinema), but McQueen too often wields these brutalities as a bludgeon with which to assert his material’s importance, never more so than in a tasteless slo-mo shot which caps the post-riot crackdown, as his camera lingers on the guard’s sticks hammering away at Sands' prone body.
The philosophical grounding for that man’s final act of protest is spelled out in one of the film’s more compelling sequences, the famed 17-minute single-take scene in which Sands relates his plans to a disapproving priest (Liam Cunningham) in the prison visiting room. Fixing the two in medium shot as they sit across each other at a table, perpendicular to the camera, McQueen stages the scene as a rousing dialectical exchange in which the men dispute each other to a stalemate. If, in the prisoners’ previous encounters with the guards, the film's argument goes, their bodies had served as objects on which their enemies asserted their control, then by staging a hunger strike, the republicans can re-claim agency of their bodies, turning their only available weapon against their opponents. What the priest principally objects to in Sands’ proposal is his pre-determined intention to die through his fasting, but while he may disparagingly label the strike an act of suicide, for Sands it amounts to murder, pure and simple, and against such determined reasoning there’s little that can be said. Still before falling into a final silence, the priest does land one shot that sticks, characterizing the other’s proposed act as stemming from a martyr complex with the younger man enthrall to an outdated and impractical romanticism, a critique that Sands is unable to quite deny and which complicates the film’s conclusion.
The strike plays out over the final quarter of the film and, while it apparently involved the participation of all 75 prisoners, McQueen confines his focus exclusively to Sands as he wastes away on his deathbed. As before, what’s salient in the director’s visual selection is the evidence of physical degradation; if the upshot of Sands’ protest is not merely death, but a gruesome bodily deterioration, then McQueen makes this fact duly felt, calling repeated attention to Fassbender’s emaciated frame, fixing close-ups on the grotesque lesions that pepper his back and the blood that he shits into the toilet. And if that sounds gross, well, that’s exactly the point, but beyond the sheer visceral impact of the thing it's not quite clear what exactly it accomplishes. Still, artistically, these moments are preferable to the film’s conclusion in which McQueen unwisely moves into full-on impressionistic mode, staging out-of-focus visual p.o.v s and inaudible audio p.o.v.s from Sands’ perspective before cutting to childhood flashbacks and shots of crows flying to signal the dying man’s final consciousness. If these conceptually unimaginative touches register as a disappointment from a Turner-prize winning artist, then it just goes to show that the director is most interested in (and most successful at) conveying the intense unpleasantness of physical suffering. That this in itself represents a dubious grounding for a work of art should give some sense of the fundamental miscalculation of McQueen’s film, even if, in the final analysis, he could scarcely have proceeded otherwise.
My review of Roland Tec's We Pedal Uphill has been posted at Slant Magazine.