The Auteur Theory: STEVE MCQUEEN


Filmography: Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Francois Truffaut, film critic and famous director of the French New Wave, famously said that “there are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors.” The role of the director in the auteur theory is of the highest standard. Generally speaking, the end product of the finished film should have, at least according to the auteur theory, a distinct creative voice coming from the director, despite the possible studio interference or other types of obstacles. The limitations and tropes involved with an auteur’s film are usually characteristics of a certain director’s style or tropes. This could encompass many aspects of the filmmaking process from the types of shots being used (Quentin Tarantino’s Trunk Shot) to certain character types that are present (The Alfred Hitchcock Blonde) to the structure and the pace of the plot (Christopher Nolan’s Non-Linearity). While story/plot elements tend to reflect a distinct voice in films, the auteur theory normally relates to the director of the film, as opposed to the screenwriter. Examples of directors having a distinct body of work despite not working on the screenplay include Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee. This is due to the auteur theory encompassing not only the elements of the plot, but with a prominent visual style as well.

When it comes to the work of director Steve McQueen (not the actor who appeared in Bullitt, mind you), the characteristics listed above feel absolutely appropriate when looking at his filmography. So naturally, the distinction of McQueen as an auteur is not unwarranted. With three feature films under his belt, while growing more and more popular  with each release (his latest film 12 Years a Slave has been getting plenty of Oscar buzz), McQueen has managed to direct films with an unflinching look at human misery from the struggle of prisoners of war (Hunger) to the emptiness of sex addiction (Shame) to finally the inhumanity of slavery (12 Years a Slave). This blog post should serve to highlight key aspects in these films that support the claim that McQueen is an auteur.


“You don’t engage the audience by by painting out of focus because it’s a horrible situation, by doing the worst frame you can. You frame it in a way to draw attention to actually what’s happening. What you say is ‘Look at this. Look at this. Look at this.'”

All of McQueen’s films, as of the writing of this post, contain lengthy unbroken takes (shot by McQueen regular Sean Bobbitt). Shots like these can serve many purposes: building tension, emphasizing a need, or  tracking real time. These all come to play during the three films. Particularly the use of emphasis.


In Hunger, there’s are two long takes worth talking about. One involves a key moment involving urine. Used as an act of rebellion, the prisoners collect their urine and pour it into the corridor. As the cleaner sweeps it up, it is filmed in such a way that it looks beautiful or aesthetically pleasing. The scene, at around three minutes, manages to show the entire corridor in the frame, maximizing clarity and space. This forces the viewer to really pay attention to what is taking place on screen, never cutting away as soon as we would like it to.

Another scene that’s quite infamous actually is the conversation between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) featuring a take at a staggering length of 17 and a half minutes. The scene is set before Sands begins a 66-day fast (that winds up killing him unfortunately), and the intense scene depicts a debate between the two men as the latter tries to convince the former not to go through with it. McQueen draws the attention of the audience here as well, drawing us in as the Bobby Sands states his raison d’etre.


Shame is similar to that as well. The picture above highlights a rather telling moment in the film when Brandon (played by Fassbender, the De Niro to McQueen’s Scorsese) goes for a jog when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has taken over his apartment. This long jog shows Brandon taking out his massive physical frustrations. As the shot continues to linger with him in focus and the empty city as a backdrop, the viewer notices his urge to use his body to stay emotionally distant. In this case, literally running away from his problems.


And when it comes to McQueen’s latest film: 12 Years a Slave, there’s a scene that has been talked about many times in reviews of the film, and for good reason. The scene in question comes as a result of recently enslaved Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) fighting back against a rather vicious racist carpenter named Tibeats (Paul Dano). As a result, Tibeats and and his friends attempt to lynch Solomon. They almost succeed until another overseer chases them off, leaving Solomon dangling off the ground. And as Solomon struggles to keep his toes in the mud with every breath more desperate than the next, we watch as it plays out as a static take with the camera never stopping and lingering at the misery of this slave and all the other slaves as they carry on with their business.

Another thing that director Steve McQueen has done well throughout these three films is grabbing very raw and emotional performances from his actors. A signature move of his involves a tight close-up on an actor’s face for a very long time. Forcing the audience to really look, so that they could understand the emotions being depicted without the need of it being said outright.




McQueen likes to linger. And he is much less likely to use flashy camerawork or editing techniques to manipulate the viewer. Instead, he wants one to marinate in the moment. “To frame it in a way to draw attention to what’s actually happening. Look at this. Look at this. Look at this.”

I know I’m looking.

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