The cinematic manifestation of The Hunger Games wraps up with Mockingjay – Part 2, laying to rest this fangirl’s greatest fear about turning these action-packed-but-thoughtful novels into multiplex fare: that the temptation to doctor their downbeat denouement into something more uplifting would be too tempting for Hollywood to resist. Test-marketing groups can’t have been very happy with the series’ ultimate message if they hadn’t read the books first; but, admirably, director Francis Lawrence has stuck pretty closely to author Suzanne Collins’ vision of what happens to people living in a culture of violence. It isn’t pretty.
Nor does it allow audiences to march out of the movie theater with springs in their steps and big smiles on their faces, and it’s easy to tell from reviews which critics were readers and which weren’t. “Where is the triumph?” some ask, feeling cheated because the rebels don’t turn out to be the white-hatted, morally one-dimensional force that they are in, say, Star Wars. But triumph is so not what this saga is about. It’s about dehumanization and personal loss and PTSD and wholesale destruction, moral and mental and societal as well as physical. Collins was a Vietnam-era military brat whose father made sure that she understood the gruesome truths that underlie the patriotic gloss of recruitment advertising. People whose acquaintance with the realities of war has been more intimate than via a videogame console will get it, I think.
This narrative is also very much about the part that media and communications play in how citizens are manipulated by those in power (whether by the government, the military or the one percent, which in the dystopian world of Panem are one and the same). But more than one side can play that game. Those who risk opposition to a system that uses child-on-child gladiator battles as “entertainment” to cow resistance may also, if they manage to live long enough, learn to use the Capitol’s own electronic tools against it. The Mockingjay – the propaganda figurehead that two-time Hunger Games “victor” Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is asked to play – is the incarnation of that pushback. Wherever she goes on behalf of the rebellion, her video team is embedded with her, and the war that plays out in the third volume of the Hunger Games saga is fought as much with media as it is with explosives and Katniss’ apparently bottomless quiverful of high-tech arrows.
While I respect the director’s narrative decisions in Mockingjay – Part 2, sometimes the staging get a little clunky in this installment. This is especially noticeable in the big action set pieces. The movie’s dramatic tension peaks in a long sequence where Katniss’ elite fighting/filming squad is using tunnels to infiltrate the heart of the Capitol, trying to elude explosive or otherwise-lethal “pods” installed as a complex defensive system by Hunger Games designers. They are also being hunted by a pack of “mutts”: mutant creatures laboratory-bred to kill mindlessly. But when members of the team are picked off one by one, it’s often difficult to make out who died until you see who’s missing in the next scene. Not an uncommon complaint that I have about actioners; but skillful direction, camera placement and editing can minimize visual confusion, and those are somewhat wanting here. Still, the traps are as imaginative and horrible as they were in the arenas of the earlier movies – most impressively a flood of black, oily ooze that the rebels need to outrun and outclimb.
The scene where seeing exactly what’s happening is most crucial is a much quieter one, in which Katniss must cast the deciding vote in determining a controversial strategy for the rebellion. Here, particularly, it helps to have read the books, in order to understand why the character acts in a manner that seems counterintuitive. Her careful choice of words, and the exchange of searching looks between Katniss and her Games mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), is key to interpreting their thought processes correctly. It’s all about who trusts whom and why, or why not.
More than anything, what makes this movie franchise work is the serendipitous casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. The books are written from her point of view, as an internal monologue; it takes some damn fine acting chops to convey all those subtle processes with the facial muscles, stance and gesture alone. Lawrence makes it admirably clear that the heroine with the inspiring speeches in the shiny Mockingjay suit is not the damaged, reluctant Games survivor. If non-reader audiences understand why she makes the complicated ethical and tactical choices that she does, it’s because they’re watching her closely. And Lawrence’s commanding screen presence insists upon being watched closely indeed.
As for the rest of the cast, the ones we most enjoyed in the earlier installments continue to shine in Mockingjay – Part 2: Harrelson; Donald Sutherland as the charmingly creepy President Snow; Elizabeth Banks as Katniss’ vapid chaperone Effie; Julianne Moore as the chilly rebel leader Coin; Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last-ever screen role as defected game designer Plutarch – whose final scene with Katniss, sadly, had to be turned into a message sent by letter when the actor died mid-filming. Even tiny roles are brought to memorable life by Jeffrey Wright as electronics whiz Beetee, Jenna Malone as flinty games survivor Johanna, Stanley Tucci as Capitol TV host Flickerman, Elden Hensen as mute cameraman Pollux, Gwendoline Christie as a rebel commander and others too numerous to mention.
That leaves the two weakest acting links, tasked with fleshing out the least compelling characters in the story: Katniss’ two suitors. As her fellow District 12 Games survivor Peeta, who has become a loose cannon following sophisticated torture and brainwashing, Josh Hutcherson gets more interesting stuff to do here than in Mockingjay – Part 1, where he was mostly seen in Capitol propaganda clips. He does more with it as well, but still comes off a bit pallid. Liam Hemsworth as Peeta’s rival Gale, Katniss’ childhood hunting buddy, still functions as mere beefcake (and the series’ worst casting choice); the director does the character further disservice by not reminding the audience more vividly of the morally dicey role that Gale plays as a tactician for the rebellion.
In sum, Mockingjay – Part 2 is not your perfect dystopian sci-fi action thriller, but it’s ultimately satisfying – if you found yourself gratified rather than disappointed by the way that the books ended. If the visceral charge of uncomplicated heroism and glory is more of what you’re after in a movie, don’t despair: More Star Wars is coming very soon.