Review: ‘Mockingjay Part 2’ closes out the ‘Hunger Games’ series with soul and sorrow

What do I mean when I use the phrase “better than it has to be” when I'm talking about a movie?

It's a question I was asked by e-mail after publishing my review of “Creed” this week, and it's a question that I thought I should answer since I'm going to say the same thing about “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2.” What it means is that there are films that exist primarily as commerce that could easily be produced in the safest, most middle-of-the-road way possible and they would do fine with their audience. When Lionsgate saw the frenzy that greeted the announcement that they were making films based on the Suzanne Collins novels, they would have been smart to make the single safest version of those books. From the start of the series, though, they've made choices that make these feel like they're not doing anything the safe way. There's something relentlessly sad and even ugly about the way they're telling the story, and it gives the films a soul that you don't alway see in blockbusters.

There is a reason “The Hunger Games” stands apart from many of the other similar films that have been released in the last few years, and that is more clear than ever in “Mockingjay Part 2,” the final heartbreaking film in the series. While much of the recent YA fiction leans heavily on a facile understanding of the Joseph Campbell “chosen one” model, Suzanne Collins built something with a real connection to the way things actually work. There is bitter wisdom in “The Hunger Games,” and it has never cut deeper or hurt more than it does in the concluding film of the franchise.

From the very beginning, this has been a story about moral courage and the almost impossible price of it. When Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) stepped forward and volunteered for the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields), it was an act of genuine heroism. She didn't think she could win, and that wasn't remotely a factor in the choice she made. She made the choice for one reason only: she couldn't watch her sister go through that, and that choice to take the suffering on herself instead, no matter what it costs her, is what defines Katniss and makes her such a strong central figure.

To be fair, there are things about this that, if you squint, look like the typical YA model. There are, after all, two men in her life, so it's obviously a romantic triangle, right? Only once you see this film, you realize that's never really been the case, and it's still not the case now, and even the characters realize just how silly an idea that is. And while things seem to have been building to a certain kind of action movie happy ending, that's not the case at all. Instead, the film builds to some hard  lessons about what happens when violence becomes the language in which you negotiate, and the film intentionally avoids doing what the audience expects they're going to see, and in doing so, they make some strong points about heroism and sacrifice.

The film is very much the second half of “Mockingjay,” picking up almost immediately after the events of the first film, with Katniss still struggling with the physical and mental scars from the attack Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) made on her after his rescue from the Capitol. She learns that he's been driven mad using toxins and mental conditioning and that he genuinely believes she's a dangerous murderer. It's a savage move precisely because President Snow (Donald Sutherland) knows exactly who Katniss is and what's important to her. He hurts her where she lives. At the same time, Katniss has embraced her role as a propaganda tool, and she's got the rebellion running on a high simmer, finally pushing in on the Capitol in a way that can't be ignored.

Without going into the plot or the way things unfold, this is not a movie about the big battle and killing the bad guy and all the things we normally see in these films. This is about disillusionment and the gradual realization that the New Boss may just be the same as the Old Boss. It's about fighting the system and learning how rigged the entire game is. It is not a cynical film, but it's about the way we become cynical as idealism fades, worn down by reality. And through it all, Jennifer Lawrence holds it all together, her performance making all of it matter. Katniss takes more body shots here than any character should endure, and she somehow keeps pushing forward, determined to finish what she started. And while Katniss is a remarkable character, I love how clearly the films establish that she is not a superhero or a messiah or special beyond a certain strength of character. This is the opposite of Harry Potter. Katniss wasn't born different or better or gifted. She isn't transformed into something magical.

What really hurts here is that after everything Katniss goes through, it doesn't matter. Everything she does just stalls what ends up being inevitable, and all of her efforts are empty, hollow. It's a hard ending to swallow, and some audiences might be disappointed or feel let down by where things end up. But it's the honest ending, and the film's final moments are tempered with the same sorrow that made the ending of “Return Of The King” so powerful and so lingering. This may be one of the most subversive blockbusters I can name, and I respect just how raw Francis Lawrence and his team play things. Even the “action” in the film is grim and painful and rarely thrilling. For all the talk of how the Gamesmakers rigged the entire Capitol to be one big game, it's not played for thrills and there's nothing fun about it.

As with the Harry Potter series, part of what makes these interesting is the depth of the supporting cast. Even with just a few moments, Woody Harrelson and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore and Elizabeth Banks and Jena Malone and Jeffrey Wright and Sam Claflin and Elden Henson and Nataline Dormer all manage to score their memorable moments. I like that now that we finally get to see more of Liam Hemsworth as Gale, he's revealed to be less than we expected, flawed and human and weak at a moment that is, frankly, unforgivable.

It feels like I've written quite a bit about these films since the first one made its premiere. You can read my review for “The Hunger Games” here, as well as “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay Part 1,” and it feels like I've said barely anything about this one. The truth is that it's been hard to sit down and write about this kind of material this week in the wake of what happened in Paris, amidst an atmosphere where the most grotesque and loathsome rhetoric has been used by politicians who somehow have not been immediately shunned for what they've said. I look at something as overtly metaphorical as this and my first inclination is to say that the world doesn't work like this, but this week… it does. And it's hard to watch these truths played out as entertainment, especially when the film underscores just how unlikely it is that anyone's going to “win” much of anything. “The Hunger Games” knows that it's wrong to sell war and death as entertainment, and that tension between message and form is part of what has made this a welcome if uncomfortable addition to the pop culture landscape.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” is in theaters now.