Magazine December 21, 2015, Issue

The Essence of Katniss

Sam Claflin, Liam Hemsworth, Evan Ross, and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Lionsgate)

If there were an Oscar — and given the shape of the movie industry these days, maybe there should be — for Sustained Excellence across Multiple Installments of a Tentpole Saga, then the Hunger Games series would be the first worthy nominee since Christopher Nolan finished up his Batman trilogy. The movies have been shepherded by two directors (Gary Ross and Francis Lawrence), they’ve been shadowed by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman before the final film’s completion, they’ve had to deal with the source material’s difficult-to-execute shift from a garish “Teen Gladiator” opening to a grim and grinding war-movie finale. And they’ve managed it all with an impressive mix of consistency, fidelity, and craft: Mockingjay Part 2, this fall’s finale, is the weakest of the four movies, but it’s still strong enough that we can say the filmmakers basically went four for four.

The greatest credit here belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, not yet a famous movie star when she took the role of Katniss Everdeen, and now the Oscar-winning, fan-charming queen of Hollywood. As always when a franchise ends, there have been reviews expressing a kind of relief that her talent will be liberated, at last, from the grip of this particular blockbuster machine. And her upcoming schedule, featuring her third collaboration with David O. Russell and projects with Steven Spielberg and Darren Aronofsky, does look as if it belongs to a woman with something “artistic” to prove after four movies as Panem’s Girl on Fire.

But Lawrence isn’t like Kristen Stewart, an idiosyncratic actress churned up by her role in the Twilight juggernaut, and the Hunger Games starring role hasn’t been the sort of pay-your-dues superhero part that too many young stars (J-Law included, in the recent X-Men movies) get shuffled into. Lawrence has a long career ahead of her, and no doubt it will include many memorable roles. But her Katniss will always be a distinctive, career-defining as well as career-making part: not something to flee with relief, but something for her to treasure, and for us to long admire.

It’s these last two Mockingjay movies, carved out of the third book of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy, in which her work has made the most artistic difference. The original hook for the saga — a near-future North America in which teenage kids from rebel provinces battle to the death for the entertainment of a decadent Capitol — was left behind after the second movie, and in the final diptych we’re just watching the rebellion touched off by Katniss’s defiance play itself out, province by province and (in this film) street by street.

The details of that rebellion, unfortunately, are not all that interesting. There was one haunting set piece in Mockingjay Part 1, featuring a rebel assault on a well-defended dam, but overall the Hunger Games franchise isn’t exactly breaking new ground in the war-movie genre. The climactic assault on the Capitol, which takes up much of Part 2’s running time, has the feel of a multi-leveled video game, and the order of battle doesn’t make much sense: We’re told one moment that Katniss and her friends are being kept safely away from front lines (because she’s too symbolically important to risk); the next they’re trapped, pinned down by the Capitol’s soldiers; the next they’re supposed to be well behind enemy lines, even though we’ve never actually seen the front lines or the heavy fighting that’s supposedly happening there. (For a gazillion-dollar movie, Mockingjay Part 2 could have spent a little more money hiring extras.)

But the battle scenes are, in a strange sense, just dramatic filler: The war that’s actually interesting is the war over Katniss, and the war within her. In the arc of the story, it’s an hour of triumph, but everyone around her has a different idea of what victory means: She has two lovers vying for her (Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, still not in her league), an army that worships her, a clutch of politicians (led by Julianne Moore’s chilly Alma Coin, the political leader of the rebellion) trying to manipulate her, a family in peril, and an old enemy (Donald Sutherland’s sinister President Snow) waiting for her in the heart of the Capitol.

From the very beginning of the Hunger Games series, when she volunteered for the arena to protect her sister, the story has sent Katniss stumbling into politics, and it’s paired her political successes — reluctant, unintended, packaged by others — with failure after failure in attempts to protect the places and people that she loves.

It’s this tension between public victory and personal anguish — between her image as the unbent, unbreakable Mockingjay and the reality of a young woman losing everything to politics and war — that Lawrence has played so pitch-perfectly throughout.

And she does it again in the finale, all the way to an ending that lets a few rays of light slip in at the last, but otherwise has a bleak power that’s simply adult, with nothing “young” about it.

I don’t say this often about blockbusters, but this one will be missed.

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