The Hunger Games series has been one of the best surprises I’ve had as a movie goer in the last few years. I went into the original skeptical. But while you could feel the film’s young-adult-novel roots, it played with ideas of class, authoritarianism, violence, and the age of reality television in a genuinely interesting way. Catching Fire was largely a retread of The Hunger Games’ plot, but it was also a much more robust action-adventure, with an undercurrent of tragedy. Then Mockingjay Part 1 delivered a grim and paranoid meditation on revolution and the perverse necessity of propaganda in wartime.
Which brings us to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, a grim and paranoid meditation on power, corruption, vengeance, and the delicate task of creating a political order. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a veteran of the Hunger Games, a bloody gladiatorial spectacle aimed at pacifying the oppressed masses in the futuristic nation of Panem, which is ruled by the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Katniss now serves as the media face of a burgeoning revolt, headed up by the mercurial President Coin (Julianne Moore).
Mockingjay Part 2 follows the now-time-honored tradition set down by Harry Potter and Twilight of breaking the final book into two parts. So it picks up exactly where Mockingjay Part 1 left off: Katniss’ friend, fellow veteran, and possible romantic interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has just been rescued from Snow’s clutches, but physical/psychological torture has effectively broken him to the point that he’s now possessed by a schizophrenic and murderous rage against Katniss herself. Still reeling from that blow, Katniss travels with the army to assault one of Snow’s major armament storage sites.
Coin and her righthand man, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), work to keep Katniss out of the fighting, but then deploy her at the surrender in an effort to convince some of the soldiers to defect. Realizing a slaughter is immanent, Katniss breaks script and tries to talk to one of the soldiers directly, and winds up with a gun to her head. One of the ideas the series has always played with is how Katniss’ survival depends on her performing for the cameras, blurring the line between the role an the reality. And Lawrence’s performance has always been crucial to this balance: few other actresses or actors could strike competing notes of decency, self-possession, conscious strategy, and the ability to hide your true self way back in your own head. It’s a trap that’s taken a toll on the character over the series. So here – in a weirdly intimate moment with a stranger, conducted over the barrel of a gun – Katniss finally gets the chance to give full vent to her despair and rage.
That leads to a crucial decision: once the assault on Panem’s capital commences, Katniss defies Coin’s orders and sneaks into the city to kill Snow herself. Accompanying her on the mission is Gale (Laim Hemsworth) – her other possible romantic interest, since young adult stories always gotta have two – Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Cressida (Natalie Dormer), and a small band of other soldiers. In a bid to turn Katniss’ insubordination into yet another media coup, Coin and Plutarch also send Peeta out into the warzone to join them. So the group has to care for a member who may not be entirely sane.
One slow-boil aspect of The Hunger Games series is that Katniss has always been more acted-upon than actor. She’s ultimately a quiet introvert who enjoys the woods, and just wants to care for her mother (Paula Malcomson) and her sister Primrose (Willow Shields). Other than one or two crucial choices, such as volunteering in Primrose’s place in the original Hunger Games, Katniss has endured the plots rather than driven them. So Mockingjay Part 2 represents a break that’s well-suited to the series’ climax: For the first time, Katniss’ pro-active choices are moving the plot, giving things a new sense of doom-laden momentum. There’s also a cool everyman thematic going on here. Despite being a public totem, Katniss’ experience also mirrors the experience of just one more irrelevant soul amidst great political upheavals and war. And then, in one single moment at the convergence of fate, Katniss gets the chance to literally alter the historical course of Panem.
The film does have its weaknesses. Mockingjay Part 2 makes a bid to recreate the gladiatorial arena aspect of the first two films, when Snow’s forces lay booby traps throughout the city. But this thematic resonance is quickly forgotten. The hall of mirrors effect of the previous films, thanks to the relentless public broadcasting of Katniss’ minute-by-minute desperate exploits, is largely missing here too. But ultimately the film’s biggest problem is the decision to split the final book into two movies. Not only does that leave us with some ponderous titles, it also means that most of Mockingjay Part 2’s big thematic and emotional payoffs rely on the momentum of events in Mockingjay Part 1. The filmmakers would probably have been better off just making one giant three-hour epic. As it stands, fans would probably be best served watching the two films back-to-back. In many ways, Mockingjay Part 2 feels like the biggest TV series finale ever, as opposed to its own standalone story.
But even if it’s a little thin, Mockingjay Part 2 is a solid flick. The script isn’t brilliant, but it’s efficient and generally avoids wrong steps or preposterous turns. Director Francis Lawrence stages some slam-bang set pieces, including a particularly nasty multistage booby trap in an abandoned city square, and a genuinely nerve-jangling trip through the city sewers, which house some unpleasant inhabitants.
But best of all, more than any other product of the young adult novel craze that I’ve seen – including Harry Potter – Mockingjay Part 2 is willing to shake loose the limitations of its genre and descend into genuine tragedy. Some of the turns in the third act are shocking and even monstrous. And the film concludes, not with massive and empty spectacle, but with a subtle and murderous political chess match between Katniss, Coin, and Snow. Even the love triangle, which the film mercifully expends little time on, has depth; Katniss’ decision ultimately turns on the way war can corrupt even good men.
As always, everything is carried by the bedrock solidity of Lawrence’s performance, offset by the creepy poison Sutherland brings to the role of Snow. By my estimates, Mockingjay Part 1 – a tightly-wound political thriller – remains the best of the lot. But even if this new film isn’t quite the cinematic powerhouse I wanted for the culmination, it ably caps off one of the most impressive popcorn movie series we’ve seen in a while. The Hunger Games has given us both Jennifer Lawrence – as capable an actress as Hollywood could ever ask for – and Katniss Everdeen, the kind of remarkably complex female heroine that American storytelling sorely needs.