Katnis Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an emotional mess after two grueling Hunger Games, opens her eyes in a hospital at the start of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1, one of the grimmer dystopian movies in a decade lousy with them. Seriously, stuff this bleak used to be in German or Japanese, but now it’s lapped up by American kids who’ve finally gotten the message that whatever’s coming isn’t good. After nightmares and nightmares-within-nightmares, Katniss heaves herself from her bed and trudges through the film on the brink of tears. She’s angry that the rebels abandoned her true love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), in the fascist capital; angry that she’s being used as a propaganda tool by the people she’s angry at; and angry that she has to bargain with the chilly rebel president (Julianne Moore behind a sheet of white hair), who seems almost as much of a totalitarian creep as the wicked president (Donald Sutherland) who just incinerated her home district and more than 90 percent of its population. The film ends at the apex of anguish: Thanks, Lionsgate, for cleaving Suzanne Collins’s third book in twain to maximize your already staggering profits. Add to that the presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman — reminding you yet again that the poor bastard went out at the peak of his talent — and it’s tough to summon up the strength to say “See it anyway. It’s really good.”
What works most smashingly is the movie’s meta side. Much of Mockingjay centers on selling. In the film, the rebels sell a revolutionary icon, Katniss in her Mockingjay wings clutching a bow and arrow. But it’s hard not to think — I’m pretty sure the screenwriters and director Francis Lawrence did — of how Lionsgate is madly selling our nation’s No. 1, nobody-doesn’t-love-her female movie star. (An inspired touch: The rebels’ first commercial for the Mockingjay ends with the same whistled four-note motif that closes the Hunger Games previews.) The problem Katniss’s handlers have is that she’s too pure to strike phony heroic poses. When she’s directed (by Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee, the rebels’ media manager) to make like Liberty from the French Revolution, she sounds like a bad high-school actress. Her former mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), wanders in from rehab to suggest they get more Method-y and shoot her in the field, whereupon she’s placed in the hands of a film crew (the director is the delightful, pert-faced Natalie Dormer) and told to do what comes naturally. Walking among the dead, the dying, the starving, Katniss is suddenly every inch the Mockingjay of her publicists’ dreams, the one who suffers and roars her defiance at President Snow, who’ll inspire the oppressed of the districts left standing to rise up and fight. The kicker is that underneath Katniss’s genuine rage, you also see her revulsion at helping turn tragedy into showbiz.
A part with this much sobbing, hand-wringing, and mournful gazing into the middle distance could be, in the wrong hands, a laugh riot, but Lawrence’s instincts are so smart that she never goes even a shade overboard. She’s a hell of an actress. Her adorable clumsiness in life suggests a reason she’s convincing onscreen: Spontaneity is all. She sings here, in a lovely, cracked voice with a touch of bluesiness, sounding as unaffected as when she speaks. If only the Hunger Games movies could tap her comic gifts, too. And if only her male-heartthrob co-stars gave more back. Liam Hemsworth has a big monologue in which he recounts the bombing of his district, but all I could think was how slow he was saying his lines, as if waiting for a flood of emotion that doesn’t come. At least Josh Hutcherson’s captured Peeta is mostly seen in interviews with Stanley Tucci’s camp talk-show host on TV screens (Peeta is being used as counter-propaganda), so the actor can’t bring his lack of urgency to scenes with Katniss.
In a harsh, downbeat war film, a few of the actors briefly lighten the mood. Elizabeth Banks returns as the chirpy escort/camp counselor Effie Trinket, this time forced to wear a regulation gray rebel jumpsuit and no wig — and mighty pissed off about it. Watch her tiny glance of horror at Moore’s non-coiffure and thank the gods of comedy for this tender mercy. I loved Sutherland’s demonic smile whenever Katniss makes a new move: In his psychotic way, he loves her. Working beside the humorless rebel president, Hoffman’s Plutarch keeps his cards close to the vest. He muses, he inveigles, he tries to balance opportunism and decency. Hoffman underplays peerlessly, layers of irony under layers of sincerity under layers of … something unfathomable. The sting of his loss will never fade.
*This article appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.