Overstuffed and Flickering Out

Mockingjay Part 2 has no illusions about being anything but the final movie in a series. There are no reminders, no “previously, on The Hunger Games” montages to put you back in the story; it just starts, opening on a Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who is, as we so often see her, bruised but not broken. Which, in a nutshell, is the problem with this movie: It doesn’t know how to grapple with the way that book-Katniss really is broken, traumatized and angry after all she’s been through.

Part one gave some time to Katniss’ emotional state, but part two nods toward a central moral quandary: Is it ever acceptable to take some lives in order to advance a cause, sacrificing the few for the greater good? Can this be avoided? The film then spins into an action movie. When the end comes, darker and quieter, we briefly get the movie this story, and our heroine, deserved.

At the end of part one, Katniss was attacked by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her childhood friend/occasional pretend husband/fellow Hunger Games victor, who had been brainwashed by the Capitol to hate her. Peeta’s still not quite right, and his situation is crushing for Katniss, though less so for us on account of Hutcherson’s mildness. He, like Liam Hemsworth’s Gale, is a distraction; the supposed love triangle between the two of them and Katniss borders on laughable, especially when the gentlemen have an awkward discussion about who has been better kissed by our heroine.

Gale is a fighter, Peeta a baker; the two of them are stand-ins for the future Katniss might want. To some degree, it’s mildly amusing to see the boyfriend characters reduced to the roles girlfriends play in so many other films, but I’d rather everyone get to be three-dimensional.

No such luck. Even at more than two hours, Mockingjay Part 2 feels flimsy and overstuffed at once, full of characters we see too briefly, lacking emotional connections, rarely letting us into Katniss’ head. Most of the film involves a violent assault on the Capitol, which has been peppered with “pods,” deadly little Hunger Games in miniature. They trigger an onslaught of inventive deaths, but because all the character development was in previous movies, the deaths are strangely unaffecting.

It’s like the filmmakers are ticking boxes: get to the Capitol, check; kill a minor character, check; bring out a new weird and deadly creature, check; tears, violence, check, check. 

Jennifer Lawrence is as good as ever, but the movie gives Katniss little to do but march forward — until one scene, near the end, where she’s suddenly a real person again, raw and heartbroken and incoherent with loss. You’ll know it when you see it; it does everything the rest of the movie could not.

To some degree, the letdown of Mockingjay Part 2 was inevitable. These movies were, from the beginning, caught between competing forces: the books are uncomfortable, disarmingly plain-written and unafraid of going to the kind of dark places that are hard to put on screen without an R rating. They add up to an argument against violence as entertainment, against false triumph, against a society that distracts itself from real ugliness and horror with nasty manufactured amusements.

There’s a note of triumph in Katniss’ wins, but there is far more loss. That’s not what our blockbusters give us; that’s the stuff of art films. These movies — even Catching Fire, the best of them — have always been tamed and tidied up, even in their violence. We had to accept that about them, let them be entertainment, bring our own complications to the table.

To this film’s credit, it doesn’t try to shoehorn in a “happy” ending. Everything is tempered, and on that level, it’s a win. It’s a win that a series headlined by a young woman is an international box office smash; it’s a win that no one can ever say “movies starring women don’t succeed”; it’s a win that the cast is full of strong women, warriors and filmmakers and presidents.

I will take 100 Mockingjays over another action movie with one female character, standing tiredly in for all of us. The phenomenon of these movies means more than the movies do themselves. For that to be true, these movies had to be a little bit safe. An angry, uncomfortable Hunger Games is not the thing of box office records. So here we are. At the end, unsatisfied, but victorious. (Valley River, Cinemark 17)

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