The clumsily-titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is noteworthy for being the first Hunger Games film which doesn't actually contain any Hunger Games. This is a smaller, bleaker, moodier film than its predecessors; light on action and heavy on despair. That's an odd way to describe a modern blockbuster based on a wildly popular young adult book series, but here we are.
When we last saw Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle), she was being whisked away by a group of underground rebels intent on fighting back against President Snow's (Donald Sutherland, Don't Look Now) oppressive regime. Now, she finds herself holed up in a secret underground facility known as “District 13.” Former Gamemaker and rebel spy Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote) is convinced that Katniss will be a valuable tool in the effort to start a revolution, but rebel President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, Magnolia) suspects Katniss is damaged goods. She may have a point: our protagonist has clearly been shaken by the friends she's lost and the experiences she's had over the course of the past two years, and she's far less naturally skilled in the realm of political leadership than she is on the battlefield.
The tone of the series shifts considerably in this film, as does the thematic focus of the series. Mockingjay – Part 1 could just as easily have been called The Politics of Propaganda: Marketing a Revolution. Katniss was used by the Capitol as the post-apocalyptic equivalent of a reality television star, and now she finds herself being used by the rebels as a political symbol. Some of the film's best scenes involve Plutarch, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, True Detective), Cressida (Natalie Dormer, Game of Thrones) and others attempting to coax a convincing “performance” out of Katniss, who is a mighty warrior but a terrible actor (it's a tribute to Ms. Lawrence's skill that she so deftly manages to capture Katniss' bad acting within her own exceptional performance). The rebels may fight for a much nobler cause, but like the Capitol, they're all too eager to distort reality for the sake of effective branding.
This is a fine franchise – it stands head and shoulders above its copious imitators – but director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) continues to demonstrate that he's a much better fit for the series than Gary Ross. While the first film too often shied away from the truly ugliness of the world it depicted and bent over backwards to avoid forcing Katniss to make truly difficult decisions, Lawrence never flinches in the face of horror. There's been a lot of talk about how “dark” the series has gotten, but the series isn't suddenly reveling in nihilism. It's simply become increasingly honest about what this scenario might really look like, and what effect it might have on those trapped in the middle of it.
As the title implies, Mockingjay – Part 1 is based on half of a book... and to be honest, it shows. The film has its share of extraneous scenes, and the ending is awfully abrupt. The closing moments feel more like the conclusion to an episode of television than a proper movie ending – tune in next year to see what happens next! Even so, the slower pace (and the relative lack of action in this part of Suzanne Collins' tale) grants additional time for low-key, thoughtful character moments, and the series has always excelled at those (unless Liam Hemsworth's Gale is involved, as the character often seems to have been imported from a far less interesting YA series). Appropriately, Mockingjay – Part 1 feels like the eye of the storm, as the battered and bruised heroes and villains steel themselves for the final conflict.
Despite the extra scenes, the now-vast supporting cast is stretched pretty thin at times. Harrelson, Stanley Tucci (The Terminal), Josh Hutcherson (Zathura), Sam Claflin (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), Elizabeth Banks (Zack and Miri Make a Porno), Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), Paula Malcolmson (Deadwood) and Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) are all basically relegated to cameo roles this time around, which is sort of a shame given the sheer amount of talent within that group. Still, they played their crucial parts in earlier installments, and it's natural that others would step into the spotlight in this context. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in another fine performance as Plutarch, who begins to reveal himself as a master manipulator of a very different sort. Donald Sutherland is still wickedly good as President Snow, regarding Katniss in the same way that Rommel might have regarded Patton. Julianne Moore makes a fine addition to the cast, playing a President who has the intellect and steely resolve the job requires but struggles when it comes to finding ways to effectively communicate with her people.
Still, the weight of the film (and the series as a whole) rests on Ms. Lawrence's shoulders, and she's proven more than capable of handling the task. Lawrence seems to get better with each installment, and her work in Mockingjay – Part 1 is heartbreakingly effective. This isn't an easy paycheck for the Oscar-winning actress – she digs in and delivers a raw authenticity rarely seen in a film this expensive. The Mockingjay is indeed worthy of our respect and loyalty.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Year: 2014