Hardly the victory march some will expect, I suspect The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 will surprise audiences unfamiliar with Suzanne Collins’ books with its glum, mournful approach. It’s a typical sci-fi dystopian setup involving an opulent fascistic regime controlling a population through violence and the common people rising up in rebellion. But what makes this concluding feature so potent and satisfying is the way it eschews easy moral binaries and the temptation to turn in a rousing finale of action and comeuppances. No, Mockingjay – Part 2 picks up where the previous feature left off, with the rebellious Districts of Panem preparing to invade the Capitol and depose evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and finds in the toil and terror of revolution only destruction and pain. It sits with our heroes and asks if their entire struggle was worth it. A quietly radical conclusion has us root for unrest and upheaval, and then explore the difficulties of putting a society back together, especially for those who blew it all up.
This is a series that’s gotten slightly better each time out, not because the overall quality has improved dramatically, but because it has complicated its character’s ideas and emotions. Now that we have all four films we can see the complete picture, a dim, cynical allegory with a glimmer of hope in the end. Our protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, fusing determination and uncertainty in one of her best performances), started as a pawn of the Capitol in their Hunger Games, a propaganda tool, gladiatorial combat to keep the masses intimidated and entertained. But, with her games partner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she managed to escape certain death in the arena, and in the process sparked a growing rebellion that soon conscripted her to be their symbol. How rare to see a hero who is confused about her role, who recognizes and bristles at her lack of control, and yet continues to struggle to do what’s right.
As Mockingjay – Part 2 begins, rebel leaders (Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman) allow Katniss to head to the front lines of the assault on the Capitol as part of a propaganda squad. With her old friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a kind-but-tough commander (Mahershala Ali), and team of soldiers (including Sam Claflin and Natalie Dormer), their job is to follow behind the fighting, inspiring the troops, and scaring the Capitol citizens, with video reports. Unfortunately, Snow has ordered the Gamesmakers to spread traps throughout the city, turning a bombed-out urban setting – all grey pockmarked rubble and dirt – into an even more twisted Hunger Games. This is how the action proceeds, the team picking through a minefield of deadly contraptions while working their way to Snow, the man they want to assassinate to end the war, bringing a new, and hopefully better, government to Panem.
Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong smartly keep the focus on our characters, allowing most of the epic battle to take place off screen through suggestion. The violence we see isn’t the massive depersonalized clashes of CG armies. It’s up close, panicked, sweating, sudden. Horror movie mechanics are used to spring traps – like automatic weapons, oil slicks, and mindless sewer mutants – with jump scares jolting firefights and foot chases into action. Between flashes of chaos, director Francis Lawrence (who has capably, artfully helmed three of the four Hunger Games) uses stillness and quiet, as characters catch their breath, debate strategy, and let the traumatic events stop ringing in their ears, if only for a little while. There’s dread everywhere, not only in the probing close-ups, which capture every bit of fear and doubt, but in the sense that all this fighting may be futile.
This has always been a series that’s both action-oriented and deeply disturbed by violence. From the shaky-cam elisions of the first Games and the brutal executions of Catching Fire to the bruising civilian uprisings in the first Mockingjay (the series' high point), it’s a franchise the looks at bloodshed with great sadness, keenly aware of cycles of trauma, fear mongering, propaganda, and war. It treats even the enemy as people, this last film finding fleeing Capitol citizens and viewing them with compassion. What started as a satire of reality TV and conspicuous consumption has become a war zone, with refugees fleeing both rebel bombings and oppressive government retaliations. (Real world echoes are impactful and messy.) The violence of the Hunger Games becomes the violence of revolution. It’s a movie too engaged with its tragic elements to create action scenarios full of mindless villains to slaughter. Every kill is felt. The cast convincingly inhabits characters who are exhausted by the chaos, and throw themselves into it anyway.
Where will it stop? And if it does, how will Katniss ever feel normal again? Her nightmares are getting worse. Her sense of purpose is the only thing keeping her moving forward. But it’s hard to tell who has her best interests at heart – one old ally has been brainwashed; others may just as soon allow her to be martyred for their cause. Worse still is the question of whether what’s best for Katniss and what’s best for Panem are or can be one and the same. It doesn’t stop with defeating Snow. Revolution is hard enough. Filling the power vacuum that follows it will be harder. Here’s a movie actually interested in contemplating these tough questions, and in a slick, pop blockbuster package that’ll draw big crowds to see this four-part story wrapped up. It takes gut-wrenching twists, and allows time to slowly contemplate howls of sorrow and confusion. That it doesn’t find easy answers, and leaves an unsettled feeling lingering in a dénouement of tenuous hope, is to its credit.