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Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is an impressively grim mess

But it’s a great reminder of how weird and vital this franchise has been all the same.

By Emily St. James @emilyvdw Updated Nov 21, 2015, 12:28pm EST

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Jennifer Lawrence steps into the role of Katniss Everdeen one final time in the last Hunger Games movie.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The best thing about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 is how unconcerned it is with what we expect in terms of closure of a happy ending.

This will come as no surprise to fans of the challenging, surprisingly provocative book upon which it’s based, but the movie doesn’t offer up easy closure or answers at any time. It’s not a deeply subtle film or anything — every action is carried out in the boldest of strokes and then lit on fire — but it does have more on its mind than bringing the story to a rousing conclusion. In some ways, Mockingjay — Part 2 is a teenage primer on the cyclical nature of oppression and the way power keeps feeding said oppression.

That’s pretty grim stuff for a holiday blockbuster, but Mockingjay — Part 2 is buoyed by the fact that the Hunger Games movies have always had a far better cast than they deserve, starting with star Jennifer Lawrence and continuing down to nearly everybody else (save one major exception).

You’re not going to leave the theater cheering at the end of Mockingjay — Part 2. You’re going to leave the theater feeling a little drained and like you need to call a loved one. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — more of our blockbusters could stand to be tonally ambitious — but the movie also makes quite a few promises it can’t keep. It’s worth your time, but it doesn’t top the second installment in the Hunger Games franchise, 2013’s Catching Fire, which is still the series’ best.

Here’s the good, the bad, and the weird of Mockingjay — Part 2.

Good: The movie is a grim slog through the horrors of war and PTSD

Katniss and her squad.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a “good” quality to you, but hear me out.

The plot of this movie, such as it is, involves the slow slog of the rebel forces through the oppressive Capitol, toward the mansion of the despotic ruler of the future dystopia known as Panem. As the rebels (who include our heroes) get closer to their goal, more and more death rains upon them, even as these battles are repackaged as reality show entertainment, complete with the framing provided to the murderous Hunger Games that give the series its title.

The point of all of this is simple: War is a machine that grinds ever onward, and it steamrolls its participants. It’s repackaged as entertainment for an unsuspecting populace, lest they get too bored by it, but those who took part in it have to live with the scars forever.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the face of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), who spends almost the entire first half of the movie in a state of shell-shocked horror, wandering from one encounter to the next, after a former trusted compatriot tried to kill her. It’s like she’s been hollowed out and propped up, transformed into a symbol more than a person.

And that’s literally what happens to her! Over the course of the Hunger Games franchise, she’s evolved from the girl she was in the early going into a figurehead of the rebellion and, finally, a propaganda piece. In Mockingjay — Part 2, she tries to reclaim some of her autonomy, but every time she makes a choice, she realizes how easily it’s co-opted, and every time she plunges deeper into battle, she suffers new psychological scars. This movie doesn’t end in explosions — it ends in hushed whispers and hopes for a calmer future.

Bad: The ending is pretty awful

Mockingjay — Part 2 adapts the final book’s goofy epilogue pretty much wholesale, right down to turning one character’s inner monologue from that section into something an actor has to say out loud. It doesn’t work.

Ending on a point of irresolution — things are no longer getting worse, but there’s no guarantee they’ll improve — is a bold choice for the franchise, in both book and film form, but neither has the guts to truly end at the best possible moment (which is roughly the scene before the epilogue). In general, Mockingjay — Part 2 botches most of its big emotional moments, either giving them too little room to breathe or too much.

All told, it uses a heavy hand when a light one would do, and vice versa. That ends up feeling a little strange.

Good: Director Francis Lawrence brilliantly conveys the film’s politics through visuals

Julianne Moore in Hunger Games.

Francis Lawrence (no relation to the star) has some issues (see below), but in general he’s proved to be just the visual stylist the Hunger Games franchise needed. In particular, he shows a relish for depicting the series’ cyclical oppression via deftly chosen images.

In particular, there’s one moment around the film’s midpoint where the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) addresses his nation after he believes Katniss has been killed. (She’s still alive.) As he’s speaking, however, his feed is overridden, mid-sentence, by that of rebel president Coin (Julianne Moore), who offers her own message about what Katniss’s death means to the nation.

For just an instant, the director pulls back to show us Moore’s face projected just over Sutherland’s, as he watches on TV, unable to do anything about the woman who’s just interrupted him. It’s a brilliant image, both for how it plays visually and for how it expresses part of the series’ subtext without beating viewers over the head: All who seek power can be corrupted by it. Don’t assume anyone has your best interests in mind.

Bad: He still can’t shoot action sequences

Francis Lawrence has long been afforded the benefit of the doubt when it comes to action sequences, because those in Catching Fire were so much better than those in the original Hunger Games film, directed by Gary Ross. But “better than Gary Ross” doesn’t necessarily equal “great at filming action sequences,” and there are too many in Mockingjay — Part 2 where it’s not remotely clear what’s happening, who’s in danger, or who’s been killed.

In a sequence near the film’s climax, for example, Katniss and her compatriots have disappeared into the tunnels beneath the Capitol, inching their way toward Snow’s mansion, when they hear whispers in the dark and realize they’re being pursued by Mutts — strange genetic hybrid mutations cooked up by the Capitol’s scientists.

The scenes that follow start out strong, as the director cribs visuals from Aliens and The Descent to follow the various characters through spooky tunnels. Danger could erupt at any moment. But once the Mutts eventually attack, everything falls apart. Major characters’ lives are put in danger and even lost in this sequence, but it’s hard to figure out exactly what has happened until the next scene, when you can take a head count. And one potentially powerful moment is destroyed simply because of how it’s filmed.

Good: The cast is one of the very best ensembles in a franchise film

The two halves of Mockingjay don’t allow Jennifer Lawrence to showcase as wide a range as she did in the first two Hunger Games films — again, Katniss is shell-shocked — but when she lets out some great, gasping sobs in Part 2, the result is an emotional catharsis the whole series has been building toward. There’s also a moment early on where Katniss indicates a willingness to die, and the actress is riveting there as well. The franchise has made her a superstar, and she’s always been more talented than it deserves.

But everyone else in the cast takes their cues from her, and the film is better for it. As poor, beleaguered Peeta, Josh Hutcherson has the mien of a believably downtrodden hound dog. And Jena Malone (sadly relegated to only a few scenes) is still one of the series’ highlights as prickly, hilarious Johanna Mason.

The series’ older cast is also full of riches, from the icily brilliant Sutherland to the calm, calculating Moore. It’s still a shock to see Philip Seymour Hoffman (who died during the production of this film) pop up, but his Plutarch Heavensbee is a gravelly, world-weary presence. And, finally, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks keep the movie from becoming too self-serious with their facility with occasional laugh lines, though both are also able to carry more serious moments as well.

Bad: Liam Hemsworth

Liam Hemsworth as Gale.

As the third point of The Hunger Games‘ love triangle, Liam Hemsworth has always been wanting. Some of that is because his character, Gale, is self-consciously designed as the third point of a love triangle, and some of it is because he just doesn’t seem to have believable chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence. But he’s also not the world’s most charismatic star.

That wasn’t such a big deal in other movies, where Gale was less of a presence. But he’s everywhere in Mockingjay — Part 2, and in the heavily emotional scenes he shares with Katniss and Peeta, he just falls flat.

In general, if there’s a lot of Gale onscreen, you can probably hit the restroom, is all I’m saying.

The weird: This whole franchise is kind of nuts, right?

The very fact that The Hunger Games exists — much less became a major film franchise! — goes against so much of what we understand about what audiences want to see nowadays. Sure, it’s based on a series of young adult novels, but it digs deeper into the darker sides of the human condition than most other successful YA movies. It’s grim throughout, and by the end it’s largely abandoned the typical blockbuster format to focus on tiny, interpersonal scenes about how hard it is to live in times of war.

Plus, the storytelling is bolder and braver than it gets credit for. Mockingjay — Part 2 starts, essentially, in the middle of a scene (as Katniss confronts the aftermath of Part 1‘s cliffhanger ending), and it concludes on a note of semi-closure but nowhere near a note of healing. There are no big victories, and the only time Katniss makes an actual choice or has any agency, she essentially makes an argument for outright anarchy.

I don’t know why, precisely, this series caught on, but I’m glad it did. Imperfect as it is, there’s never been anything quite like The Hunger Games, and all attempts to copy it have failed to replicate its dark, spiny soul.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 is playing in theaters throughout the country.

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