The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 opens with this: Our heroine having a neck brace removed to reveal bruises that wrap around her throat, where her recently-rescued POW boyfriend throttled her at the end of the last film.
It’s not pretty. It’s not action-packed. It’s quiet, a little gruesome, disturbing. But it encapsulates the two best things about the Hunger Games franchise: The way these films reckon with what war is, and Jennifer Lawrence’s outstanding performance.
Katniss (Lawrence) believes she is ready for war. Panem’s Hunger Games, which turned war into reality TV, have been replaced by a war in earnest, in which Katniss is alternately a leader, a weapon, and a symbol. She wants to fight, but she can be more strategically deployed in propaganda videos that rally the troops. The one really calling the shots is President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), a slippery wartime ruler who sees Katniss as someone she can contain and, should the occasion call for it, discard.
Mockingjay is a rare thing: A blockbuster in which just about every single character has severe PTSD.
At Katniss’ side is long-suffering childhood best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the other side of her love triangle, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who, while imprisoned by the Capital, was brainwashed into thinking his only mission in this life was to murder the girl he was once willing to die for. (In Hunger Games speak, Peeta was “hijacked,” and Hunger Games speak is one of the series’ biggest weaknesses; if you can keep yourself from laughing when someone refers to “tracker-jacker venom” or says the name “Mr. Heavensbee,” friend, you’re a better audience member than I am.)
Mockingjay has its flaws. But overriding those weaknesses is how it manages to be something rare and vital: A blockbuster in which just about every single character has severe PTSD. Earlier Hunger Games installments dealt with this, in smaller doses: Katniss had nightmares from which she regularly awoke screaming, flashbacks she couldn’t control. But we’ve reached a point in our narrative in which even the characters who had once been sheltered from the fighting — like Katniss’ mother and sister, those who watched the Hunger Games on TV — have seen their share of combat. District 13, the underground rebel hub which the Capital thought was destroyed, has been arming itself for a new war since the end of the last one. Citizens from other Districts who found their way to District 13 did so because they were fleeing battle-ravaged homes. Whatever innocence used to permeate this place has been gone a long while.
It’s a war movie that actually reckons with war as it is, not the escapist comic book fantasy of what we wish war could be. In Mockingjay, the good guys are only “good” insofar as they are not the people who have personally inflicted violence on people Katniss loves — an equation that could shift at any time. There is rarely a moment of pure, satisfying victory — when that moment comes, it is brief. Conversations are more about tactics than ethics, focused on a game plan, not the bigger picture. And when Katniss does find out what her superiors’ idea of a “bigger picture” entails, it is more distant from the future she’d envisioned for herself and her country than she was capable of anticipating.
The safety you can feel in the back of your mind during other movies that are ostensibly about a battle to save the planet from total destruction is the knowledge that no one you actually care about is going to die; when the movie you’re watching is over, the most beloved characters still have to be available for every other flick in the franchise. The Hunger Games, a self-contained universe with only this story to serve, does not afford such luxuries. Explosives await Katniss and her pack around every corner. The body count builds.
Unlike with so many other girl-hero getups, you never wonder how Katniss will be able to fight without falling out of her clothes.
The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins has described how her father’s memories of serving in Vietnam inspired her books. She was six years old when her father left to serve there; when he returned, she told the New York Times, he endured “nightmares that lasted his whole life,” and sometimes she would wake up in the middle of he night to the sound of him screaming from his dreams. So while some suggest her books for teenagers work because the whole thing is an allegory for adolescence — everything feels like life and death, you want to kill your best friend sometimes, etc. — she does not abide that description. “I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war. For adolescents.”
Mockingjay also gets at the idea of war as a performance — a theme that’s been threaded throughout the series, as the point of the Hunger Games is that they’ve televised to all of Panem — and how optics influence what happens in combat. This is a movie that gets away with critiquing that sort of thinking (Katniss can barely hide her disdain for the “propos” she is supposed to film when she’d rather be on the front lines; Coin coolly describes Katniss’ value as symbolic rather than human) and acting on it at the same time.
Katniss is almost always centered in the frame, her dark hair flying or in her signature braid, her body encased in black combat gear. In the one scene in which Katniss leans hard into the power of these visuals — the only time she really wants people to be looking at her — not only is she in all black everything, but even her eyes are ringed in dark black liner. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Katniss has the perfect uniform. Unlike so many other girl-hero getups, you never wonder how she’ll be able to fight without falling out of her clothes.
Save for sequences that take place underground — stretches of time in which her goal is not to be seen — Katniss stands out, her darkness juxtaposed against a pale, gray-and-white world. Her nemesis, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), is all white hair and white roses; his army, ironically called “Peacekeepers,” wear white armor. President of District 13, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), wears clothes the color of slate and makes her final appearance in a gray so light it’s practically white, too. The world is mostly concrete slabs, structures and urban landscapes, that are, to a modern eye, very Germany-in-the-1930s. Unarmed citizens of Panem wear drab earth tones, brown as the dirt. Only the wealthy, still residing in the Capital, are dressed in colorful, over-the-top getups, but what once scanned as typical rich-people excess looks, in context, foolish and sad, like dressing up for the march to the guillotine.
For the five or six people left on Earth who are still wondering if Jennifer Lawrence is a movie star, her turn in these Hunger Games films should put their skepticism to rest. Katniss is always feeling two things at once, or acting contrary to her inner desires, and Lawrence gives life to that complexity. The books are written in the first person, and every bit of Katniss’ interior life that readers could get in paragraph form is evident in the smallest flicker of Lawrence’s eyes, in the slightest adjustment in her face.
Still, Mockingjay is stalled by two key flaws. The first, which has held back the movies from the get-go, is the non-existent chemistry between Lawrence and Hutcherson and Lawrence and Hemsworth. It’s a love triangle in which you don’t root for a side so much as think, “It’s really too bad Katniss and Finnick never got together in the books.” Whatever spark these kids have that makes them so delightful on a press tour is totally absent from the movies. In the sold-out theater in which I saw the movie, kisses between these leads consistently generated laughter. One assumes this is not the reaction they were going for. Jennifer Lawrence’s accidental kiss with co-star Natalie Dormer had more oomph.
It’s a war movie that actually reckons with war as it is, not the escapist comic book fantasy of what we wish war could be.
Also, there’s the teeny, tiny fact that this movie doesn’t really have a reason to exist. Mockingjay is, by far, the weakest of all three Hunger Games novels, but following in the Harry Potter precedent, its final novel — like the final novel in Twilight, the god-awful Divergent series, and on and on until the end of YA forever — was split into two movies. Can’t exactly blame a studio for milking a ridiculously lucrative property for all its worth. But the result is a movie that lacks the basic things a person may be looking for in one, like a three act structure, or a plot beyond “we are traveling from District 13 to the Capital without getting blown up en route.”
It is also impossible to see Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, and not be pulled out of the film; his conspicuous absence from certain scenes, and his sometimes digitally-rendered form, are inevitably distracting.
But on a more positive note, it is hard to state just how refreshing it is, in the still overwhelmingly male-dominated film industry, to see a movie not only starring a female hero but based on a book series written by a woman and packed with complicated, dynamic female characters, many of whom occupy positions of authority in both politics and combat. In addition to Coin and Katniss, we have Cressida (Dormer), the savvy producer of Mockingjay propaganda; Johanna (Jena Malone), snarky ex-tribute turned warrior, Effie (Elizabeth Banks), who may, aesthetically, be comic relief, but demonstrates her own quiet strain of bravery; and Commander Lyme (Gwendoline Christie), Lieutenant Jackson (Michelle Forbes), and Enobaria (Meta Golding), high-ranking officials in the fight against the Capitol.
So go ahead, Hunger Games, make this last as long as you can. Crank out two movies where one would suffice. There are worse ways to make a billion dollars.