The new Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire, the second of what we’ve been told will be four movies eventually, is terrific, much better than the first film, which was really very good too. The first movie was really just about Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers for the Hunger Games to save her younger sister from fighting in it, and her fight to survive. Okay, it was also about Katniss’ love triangle–in love with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), while trying to protect the endlessly decent and generous Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). We got a sense of the larger political environment, of the über-rich Capitol and the variously poor Districts surrounding it. And the way the Games reflect that dynamic–the constant reminder of the boot on the Districts’ neck. It was all there in the first movie. But it was basically about Katniss.
The second movie, though, is much richer, much more textured, and much much more political. We can see it in the increasingly shark-like grin of Caesar Flickerman, Stanley Tucci’s rich portrayal of the TV host of the Games, all smarm and faux compassion, a glitzy sociopath at play. We can see it in Elizabeth Banks’ marvelous Effie Trinket, fashionable and foolish and secretly terrified. We can see it in Lennie Kravitz’ sad eyes as Cinna, Katniss’ gown designer and secret friend, who turns fashion into political statement, knowing what it will eventually cost him. And above all, we see it in an early scene between Katniss and Donald Sutherland’s leonine President Snow. “Let’s tell each other the truth,” he purrs, and she responds, with typical Katniss directness, “Let’s. It’ll save time.”
And then, we see Katniss’ disastrous victory tour of the Districts, in which she’s forced to pay her respects to the dead tributes she defeated, while pretending to be passionately in love with a good guy she, well, likes as a friend but not much more. (Initially; that changes). An elderly black man gives the mockingjay three-fingered salute. Katniss, horrified as she’s dragged off-camera, sees a glimpse of Capitol soldiers murdering him. And suddenly Haymitch Abernathy (the only previous victor from District Twelve) and his drinking problem make a whole lot more sense. (And Woody Harrelson is tremendous as Haymitch too; a haunted, haunting performance).
This is a movie about a young woman who unwittingly becomes the symbol for a revolution, and who is manipulated by ally and foe alike. She’s never quite sure what’s going on, and she’s never entirely sure who she can trust. It’s a movie about politics, but from the perspective of a symbol who knows her actions have consequences, but who can’t quite get a handle on how or why.
As such, it’s actually sort of an odd role for Jennifer Lawrence. Her great gift as an actress is her directness, her immediacy, the way ever acting choice is driven by objectives and tactics. She never hides, she never backs down, she never wavers. She’s completely connected as an actress, completely in the moment, emotionally and physically. She’s not particularly beautiful, in the mainstream Hollywood sense; she doesn’t have the conventional prettiness of so many of her contemporaries. What she is is amazing. Strength is beauty; emotional directness is power. Katniss could be played as not just bewildered and afraid, but also intimidated. Jennifer Lawrence bowls us over by showing how one conquers fear, by portraying the essence of courage.
There’s a moment in the film when Katniss is awaiting the start of these new, all-tribute games. She’s in a sort of glass tube elevator, bringing her up to the platform where her game will begin. She can see Cinna, her dear friend and confidante, being beaten to death by soldiers just outside her tube. She’s screaming, pounding the glass. The glass ascends; she realizes she’s going to be in heavy combat in a matter of seconds. We see her fight for control, fight to set her horror and heartbreak aside. It’s an extraordinary acting moment, and honestly, I’m not sure I know another actress working today who could pull it off, not with that emotional connectedness and integrity.
The other actors in the film seem to have been aware they would have to up their game to keep up with her, and for me, most of the pleasure of this film was seeing them do it, seeing all these terrific actors (most of them from the first movie), bring that much more to their roles. Best of all are two new actors for the franchise, Jena Malone and Sam Claflin. Malone plays Johanna, a fellow tribute competing against (we think) Katniss. Impudent, slutty and thoroughly pissed off–Malone walks off with every scene she’s in. Claflin plays another tribute, Finnick–impossibly good-looking, a narcissistic charmer. We think. But that’s the mask he’s worn to survive. He emerges as a remarkably heroic and loyal friend to Katniss; Claflin is likewise outstanding in the role.
It’s an intensely political film–I mean, it’s about political oppression and a covert revolution, how could it be anything but political–but its politics seem mostly fantasy-fictional. It’s the politics of ancient Rome, and the Spartacus revolution if it’s about anything actual or real. Or, I don’t know, maybe President Snow is a Bourbon, and it’s about Louis XIV, the Capitol standing in for Versailles. It feels like a reach to connect it too much to our contemporary political world. Some few Tea Party types like to present themselves as an ‘oppressed’ white minority, under the dictatorial thumb of President Snow/Obama, but theirs is an entirely imaginary oppression. Or maybe ‘The Capitol’ is corporate America, and Katniss represents the Occupy Wall Street movement. Again, I don’t recall Occupy protestors being summarily executed.
No, what Suzanne Collins has done is create an entirely imaginary fantasy world, a convincing fictional futurist dystopia. The film’s Austrian director, Francis Lawrence, has matched Collin’s vision superbly, and created an exciting, powerful, scary, memorable film. I can’t wait to see the next two films. Or anything else Jennifer Lawrence acts in, ever, anything.