Katniss Everdeen’s last hurrah is as well-crafted and unforgiving as a European art house drama. For kids!
Our lives were never ours. They belong to Snow, and our deaths do too. But if you kill him, Katniss, all those deaths, they mean something.
There’s a comfort in consistency, and the second half of the Hunger Games finale is exactly what was promised. Like Part 1, it doesn’t really stand on its own — though if you’re wandering into a cinema having never seen the previous installments, that’s on you, man, and you deserve whatever happens.
But also like Part 1, which I liked despite being only the more boring half of the story, it’s polished, heady filmmaking. Since the films were made back-to-back, the odds of a sudden drop in quality were low. At this point you should know what you’re in for: explosions, matching grey uniforms, Jennifer Lawrence staring determinedly into the distance, three-fingered salutes, and an overwhelming feeling of dystopian bleakness. Mockingjay, Part 2 has all of these, with a double portion of bleakness.
Suzanne Collins’s third novel (which she consulted with Peter Craig & Danny Strong in adapting) was highly polarizing upon its release, for reasons that will be obvious, and you have to admire Lionsgate’s willingness to go all the way. I haven’t quite decided, however, whether the storytelling decisions made in the final chapters are bold in their supposed realism, or sadistic rug-pulling that taunts the audience for thinking that a series that begins with children killing each other for entertainment could ever be emotionally redeeming. (The tagline on the posters is even “Nothing can prepare you for the end,” which is…interesting.) If the message of The Hunger Games is “War is hell,” the point is made with all the subtlety of an bomb blast, and no tacked-on epilogue can really make up for the horrorshow that preceded it. Everyone who survives to the end of the story is messed up, and with good reason.
But enough about the ending. I’m not going to spoil anything, though I figure if you’re reading this you probably know what happens anyway. Mockingjay isn’t a film to be enjoyed, but sobered by. When its only laugh comes via its villain — and this is a movie where Elizabeth Banks’s eyelashes are a yard long — pure entertainment clearly isn’t the goal.
When we left off last year, Katniss’s stage boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) had been rescued from the Capitol, only for her to discover that the tiny baker had been brainwashed into wanting to kill her. Part 2 drops us immediately back into District 13 without preamble or a “previously on,” so if you don’t remember all the names or just what is going on, that’s also too bad. One gets the impression that in our binge-watch culture, these films are almost designed to play back-to-back.
In any case, after proving her worth as a propaganda figurehead, the rebel leadership feel Katniss has done her job and move to get her off the front lines. Naturally, Katniss — whose driving mission since the first film has been to assassinate President Snow (a deliciously preening Donald Sutherland) — balks at this, and goes anyway. The second half of the film, in which Katniss and her team make the final push toward the Capitol, is a killing field of trigger-happy Peacekeepers, boiling oil, whirring spikes, disintegrating beams of light, and — in the film’s most terrifying sequence — an unending wave of eyeless, razor-toothed subterranean humanoids. Director Francis Lawrence, who now has his name on three out of four installments and had guided the franchise to the end like Harry Potter’s David Yates, generally keeps things moving even when the film’s bathroom breaks come with neon signs.
But make no mistake: this is Jennifer Lawrence’s movie, and she carries herself like the star she has become. When the first film was released, she was only a lowly Oscar nominee. Now she’s an Oscar winner (with another nomination practically guaranteed for Joy), one of the biggest box office draws in the world, and Amy Schumer’s new best friend. “Meteoric” doesn’t do her rise justice.
But as her profile has grown, all those Hollywood heavy-hitters brought in to give the franchise its gravity have become window dressing. In Part 2, the side characters we’ve come to love, like Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks’s Effie, and Jena Malone’s unhinged Joanna, get shunted off to the sidelines. (Stanley Tucci gets as many scenes as Brienne of Tarth, which is one.) This is the Katniss Revenge Hour. But guess what we DO get more of? The Peeta-Gale love triangle. (No, not Peeta and Gale together, though that really would have been a twist.) It’s here that the film regresses back to the YA genre that birthed it, after teasing that it was too mature to concern itself with petty questions like “Who should Katniss end up with?” when the best answer is probably “Neither.” The more practical answer is probably “The one who doesn’t die.”
Fortunately, that’s not the only thing Mockingjay has on its mind. If Catching Fire was (at the start) about shell-shocked veterans trying to return to “normal” life, and Mockingjay, Part 1 focused on media’s controlling influence for good and for ill, Part 2 is accidentally even more prescient. Though the production design is so dense we almost take it for granted, it’s a little chilling to see Paris stand in for the bombed-out Capitol, and the word “refugee” is thrown around so often you wonder if the projectionist accidentally changed channels.
Then there’s the looming realization that the new regime, led by President Coin (an ice-cold Julianne Moore, who nevertheless has more to be proud of than, say, Kate Winslet in the Divergent series), might not be any better than the last one. There are a lot of speeches about who the “real enemy” is, but the cycle of violence is so ingrained in the citizens of Panem it will take a major sacrifice to break it. The real-world parallels, like when Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final appearance in anything, even as a CGI head) debate how many innocent deaths are too many, are striking. This is largely an apolitical franchise (other than “totalitarian dictatorships are bad,” I guess), but Snow’s speech to his people about how the rebels “don’t share our beliefs or way of life” might hit a little too close to home.
At times, between the screaming and the mayhem and the long stretches of silence while we wait for screaming and mayhem, it feels more like a punishing Sunday night drama like The Leftovers or The Walking Dead than blockbuster entertainment, and that might be its greatest achievement as well as its detriment. A lot of people are going to walk away from this movie disappointed. That does not, however, make it bad. Great art is supposed to challenge, and while Mockingjay as a four-hour experience isn’t quite that, it leaves the question of “Wait, should I be entertained by this?” cleverly unresolved.