In my review of 2014’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, I wrote that the penultimate film felt like a rest stop on the way to what I hoped would be a “more substantial denouement.” Part 2 is indeed more substantial than the superfluous Part 1 (Why did Lionsgate split one Mockingjay book into two films and release them a year apart? Oh yeah, money!), but it’s also—be warned—a lot more violent and lugubrious. Lest you needed the reminder: a diverting and winky action-adventure, The Hunger Games most certainly is not.
Still, when compared to cheaper copies like Insurgent and The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (ugh), this one actually holds weight, even gravitas. Catching Fire remains the best film of the Hunger Games series, but Mockingjay – Part 2 claws its way up to a chilling second place.
In Part 2, major and minor characters are bumped off with video game abandon—not that this is anything new in dystopian fiction or in this series—but what differentiates this film from its predecessors is the more ghoulish lingering on the characters being sliced and diced, or, in one horrific sequence, gobbled up by sewer “mutts” that resemble a cross between White Walkers and aliens with engorged heads. Though the PG-13 rating prohibits buckets of blood or explicit gore, expect carnage on a mass scale, with even more bodies being CGI-demolished and dismembered this go-round. In light of recent events, the bombing scenes are particularly jarring.
Of course, the Hunger Games films have always been darker than their contemporaries; you can’t build a popular franchise around children killing each other without being grim. But what clouds and also deepens the complexity of Mockingjay – Part 2 is the complete breakdown of trust on both sides of the battle. When the line between the rebels, led by the icy President Coin (Julianne Moore), and the Capitol civilians and Storm Trooper-esque Peacekeepers still in the fold of Panem’s despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) begins to blur and eventually disappears, a sociopolitical commentary even more powerful than “the media corrupts!” takes hold.
The sad truth about war—one that the American people didn’t grasp until the atrocities in Vietnam lit up their television screens and seeped blood into their living rooms—is that most of the time, there are no easily definable “good guys” and “bad guys.” In war, both sides are corruptible, and in many pockets, already corrupted. And in The Hunger Games, especially this final installment, signifiers like “allies” and “enemies” have all but lost their meaning.
Intriguing and obviously conducive to the screen as Suzanne Collins’ source material is, it’s also clear—perhaps never clearer than in this film— that it’s Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as the intrepid Katniss Everdeen that has made this franchise work. Lawrence has that uncanny ability to project strength and valor while manifold emotions simultaneously flicker across her face like sun through leaves, and in Part 2, her performance is as fixating as ever.
As the fan-favorite deuteragonist, Josh Hutcherson imbues Peeta with the required volatility, since his character is still recovering from having his mind and body hijacked by President Snow in Part 1. Lawrence and Hutcherson have great platonic chemistry, but the romance has always felt forced, and here it’s borderline awkward even after his homicidal programming begins to fade. Also unfortunate is the continued emphasis on the love triangle between Peeta, Katniss, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which remains the dumbest and most boring side plot. I mean, c’mon. Katniss has bigger problems than deciding which boy to bone.
The other big names—Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee (great names, by the way), Sutherland and Moore—well, they cash their paychecks. Sutherland really sinks his teeth in, but to be fair, he’s the big bad. Moore gives some bite to the limited screen time she’s given, while the others are reduced to little more than cameos. It’s a jolt to see Hoffman in the film’s opening minutes, standing by as a sort of tender uncle to Katniss when she struggles to speak through a nastily bruised throat (Peeta’s doing). He is quiet in the rest of his scenes, obviously inserted via CGI in others. One can only imagine what might have been.
Mockingjay – Part 2 is morose, gruesome, and, at times, exhilarating. We want Katniss to win, as we always have, but it’s also edifying to watch our hero learn that there are no winners in war, only losers, until someone decides that the war must end.