THE HUNGER GAMES may be based on a wildly popular young adult series of novels, but the film adaptations have always tackled issues that are powerfully adult and presented as such. Set in an unspecified future, the class system has run so wild that the life and death of the proletariat class has become institutionalized for the ruling class as a spectator sport, known as the eponymous Hunger Games. In the final installment of the series, MOCKINGJAY 2, the political commentary that has formed the undercurrent comes to the fore, as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), prole with a wicked skill with her bow and arrow, a fierce protectiveness of those she loves, and the unwilling symbol of popular uprising against that ruling class, risks everything to take vengeance on the President Snow (Donald Sutherland all elegantly unruffled malice), ruler of Panem.
Fair warning. This is not a film for someone new to the series. It starts with Katniss recovering her voice after being throttled by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her quondam fiancé when they were the darlings of the games. He’s also one third of the romantic triangle that simmers nicely in the background as revolution rages. The other third is Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who realizes that Peeta being tortured by President Snow into hating Katniss only complicates matter rather than clearing the way for him. But this is no romance novel come to life. Katniss is too focused on fighting her way across the capitol city in order to dispatch Snow to let anything distract her, not the young men who love her, not the soldiers who would die for her, not the rebel leader, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), a grey wraith of political expediency without the tempering effects of empathy who prefers to use Katniss for her propaganda value rather than put her in harm’s way.
Thus do we come to the true heart of this story. Illusion and reality co-existing symbiotically at times, at others locked in a death-struggle that threatens everyone on both sides. It can’t be a coincidence that Peeta’s refrain asking if a memory of his is real or not, punctuates the action. Nor that the propaganda team turned guerilla warriors are not fighting an army, but rather the booby traps, created by the same people who programmed the games, and planted by Snow within the capitol city to wipe them out. Mortal enemies tell each other the truth, allies lie to one another, and safety is a concept better suited to wishful thinking that spurs the characters to prevail.
This is a somber and suspenseful film, told without frills and with the taste of ashes in both victory and defeat. The sacrifice Katniss is willing to make is not for herself, but for those who come after her, and does not necessarily offer the peace that death would afford. The emotional tenseness is even more overwhelming than that arising from what is lurking around the next corner, or beneath the fetid waters of the sewer where the most terrifying part of Katniss’ journey takes place.
Once again Lawrence makes Katniss more than just a strong female character. She is ferocious but still vulnerable, and few actors of either gender could have delivered the most overtly political speech in current cinema with such emotional conviction. Held at gunpoint, she is still a firebrand as she distills the teachings of Marx into a dare that she spits out at her captor with a transcendent rage and steely conviction that is almost a longing for it all to be over. It may be the best special effect in a film that uses them sparingly, but with great clout. From the booby traps as outsized as Snow’s ego, to the eyeless creatures that are all teeth and appetite, nothing is done simply to dazzle, though it does.
I wish that there could have been time with some of the ancillary characters. It’s the nature of adaptations, but here’s hoping the director’s cut has more Stanley Tucci as Caesar, the television host who is all style and no substance; Elizabeth Banks as Effie, Katniss’ fashion-crazed former minder, who has found both; and in his last big screen appearance, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch, the games master who is not what he seemed.
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – Part 2 is the toughest of the four films, but also the most satisfying for the courage to be true to its characters rather devolving into a trite fairy tale.