Deep Focus: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1
Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 features several stirring set pieces, but it’s mostly an epic of inaction. I mean that as a compliment. This unusual and affecting entry in the Suzanne Collins–based series is the opposite of blockbusters that set out to pop eyes and pound eardrums. As it continues the saga of the girl who survives gladiator games on her own terms, upsetting the oligarchy in the Capitol of Panem and fomenting rebellion in its 13 districts, Mockingjay 1 whips up both mordant and melancholy moods. The movie’s power comes from keen observations of its one-of-a-kind heroine, who barely manages to pick her way through political minefields and pitched combat. As Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence embodies a quality rare in American pop movies: heroic confusion. Both Lawrences, director and actor, pull the audience into Katniss’s inchoate longings, shriveling sorrows, and conflicting loyalties.
This film lacks the visual richness and momentum of the second Hunger Games film, Catching Fire (also directed by Lawrence). At two hours and three minutes, it covers only half of the climactic book in Collins’s trilogy, and still, at a crucial turning point, feels truncated and jerky. But director Lawrence, with first-time Hunger Games screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong, improves on the previous film in one critical way. He achieves the intimacy of first-person storytelling by tuning into the heroine’s slightest shifts in thought and feeling. (Katniss narrates the books, not the movies.) Her maturing, fluid perspective freshens up a series whose themes and tropes have come to seem familiar.
That familiarity is due to the series’ popularity and its roots in reality. The film’s depiction, in hard-edged montages, of an insurmountable gap between rich and poor and a budding proletariat revolution should excite series fans. One sequence filled with public executions of hooded citizens is so close to current TV news that it’s tough to watch. The film’s view of torture, black-ops missions, sabotage, and secret weapons—moves and counter-moves in a deadly geopolitical game—isn’t far removed in tone or detail from, say, Zero Dark Thirty. What makes it all distinctive is the wild-card protagonist. Katniss’s honor is personal, not political; her behavior is ethical, not tactical. She can foster revolution only if she feels defiance in her gut. Lawrence comes through with so much range and potency that both her vulnerability and her strength seem boundless.
Lawrence starts the movie with an extraordinary display of a deeply engrained sadness that never completely disappears, even when Katniss acts headstrong or feisty. As with the greatest silent movie stars, Lawrence’s emotions seem to come through the camera without mediation. The audience feels what she feels, not just heart to heart, but also marrow to marrow. Her rapport with viewers is visceral.
While still recovering from the PTSD she suffered in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (the final running of the games was a perilous all-star edition), Katniss confronts the ghastly remains of friends and neighbors who’ve given up the ghost in District 12. She strives to save endangered comrades, including her beloved Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and she enters the world of our postmodern, digital phantoms—false images spread as propaganda. Along the way she stumbles, pauses, commits errors, and hurts the other hometown boy who loves her, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). All the while, she rises to the task of growing up in tragic times. She learns how to function in an environment filled with behavioral booby traps. She comes to sense how much she can trust the flawed, agenda-driven men and women who become her closest allies. This is the only futuristic YA fantasy that reminds me of Hamlet: in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 version, the film student hero (Ethan Hawke) obsesses over a video diary full of family memories, sees the ghost of his father on closed circuit TV, then struggles to navigate a world in which high-tech media are a third strand of human DNA.
Like Hawke’s brooding prince of the Denmark Corporation, Lawrence’s Katniss can be maddening. Panem’s oppressed citizens accept her as “the Mockingjay,” their symbol of revolt against tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Yet Katniss isn’t ready. She resents trainer Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and rebel mastermind Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for manipulating her and whisking her away from the Capitol while leaving others like Peeta there to suffer. She chafes at the secrecy and regimentation of District 13, a region that was thought to be destroyed. It’s actually functioning underground because of a non-aggression pact with its enemy, the Capitol. Ruled by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), District 13 subjugates individual expression for the common good. When Coin and Plutarch try to mold her into a studio-built, agitprop star, Katniss can’t summon genuine fervor and emotions when ordered, and the actor turns her failure into sharp, funny self-parody. (Only very few scenes properly exploit Lawrence’s rueful humor.)
Neither Hutcherson’s Peeta nor Hemsworth’s Gale comes off as worthy of Katniss. Peeta appears mostly in propaganda broadcasts from the Capitol, acting like President Snow’s poodle and enraging District 13 with strident calls for a cease-fire. He’s supposed to be acting under duress, but Hutcherson isn’t skilled enough to suggest why Peeta is near his breaking point; his scenes become unbearably clumsy because they over-rely on Katniss screaming out her analysis of his deteriorating looks and increasingly tic-ridden behavior. Hemsworth, for his part, lacks ardor and dash. Natalie Dormer has a matter-of-fact slyness as Cressida, the director who follows Katniss into rubble for propaganda footage, and Elden Henson has a refreshingly gentle presence as Pollux, the mute cameraman who inspires her to sing a song her father taught her called “The Hanging Tree.” (It’s a folksy, doleful tune that Lawrence imbues with Katniss’s bruised feelings; you believe that Plutarch can turn it into a rebel anthem.)
Several other performers are sensational. Julianne Moore is charismatically ambiguous as President Coin; with steely-grey straight hair and matching contact lenses, she transforms her beauty into an impenetrable mask. Walking and talking with zero wasted effort, she’s 100-percent certain and efficient, the perfect counterpoint to Katniss. Elizabeth Banks again turns a conceit into a character as Effie Trinket, the flamboyant Hunger Games escort for Peeta and Katniss who has been surprisingly loyal to them. The way Banks plays her, with high-pitched, off-kilter humanity, she sees the comedy in bringing a style maven like herself into jail-like District 13, and rises above her own alienation to serve as Katniss’s one-woman prep team. (The expansion of Coin’s and Trinket’s characters are the biggest changes from the book.) Harrelson makes sure that after Haymitch dries out, he’s never merely sober; he interjects some droll effrontery into District 13’s grim brain trust. Hoffman is hit-and-miss this time around as Plutarch. He plays the character’s knowingness, cynicism, and fear way too broadly, though he does have moments of lowdown wit, especially when he’s clashing with Coin—or possibly, by the end, pulling her strings. (He mouths her climactic rallying words as she speaks them, signaling the movie audience that his character wrote them.)
In the compartmentalized world of District 13, where everything is shades of grey, including the food and the uniforms, director Lawrence doesn’t match the eeriness or the striking geometric design of the workers’ quarters in Metropolis. Aboveground, there’s no Goya-like charge to his vision of shattered buildings and slaughtered populations turning into a rubble of concrete and bones. But Lawrence never lets the oversized settings swamp his talented performers. He keeps the action lucid in the trickiest scenes, such as Katniss reacting to the atrocities of total war while Cressida’s propaganda cameramen record her responses. Lawrence’s stylistic discipline ultimately pays off big-time, especially in the image of District 13 citizens scurrying down thousands of stairs to reach their bomb shelters before a Capitol raid. Suddenly the diagonal lines on the screen come alive, and Lawrence achieves a visual fury worthy of Fritz Lang.
The director’s signal achievement in Mockingjay—Part 1 is showcasing Jennifer Lawrence’s ability to bring her expansive personality into close quarters. Mockingjay—Part 1 has already been interpreted as a commentary on itself, with the rebels serving up their greatest asset, the Mockingjay, the way this movie serves up its greatest asset, Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence, like Katniss, generates real emotion despite artificial demands. (Lawrence’s career so far does have a unique poetic rightness: After breaking through just four years ago as the resilient Ozarks girl in Winter’s Bone, she’s become a mainstay of comic-book and fantasy franchises — the X-Men films as well as The Hunger Games — without losing her indie roots. She functions as an earthy, cock-eyed muse for writer-director David O. Russell, and she’s acted at the top of her game in his Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.)
I think the irony goes deeper. Even an ideological egalitarian like President Coin eventually sees that artistic gifts are not distributed equally. For Coin and the movie to mount their smart attacks on the way plutocrats dominate 99 percent of the population, they must rely on a star who’s in the top one percent of talent. By the end, every righteous soul in Panem is rooting for the Mockingjay to spread her wings. By then, not only fans but also lovers of great acting in any genre will be aching for Katniss to bring the battle to her enemies in Mockingjay—Part 2.