Movie Review: The Hunger Games
Director: Gary Ross
Reviewed: 25 March 2012
jamesintexas rating--***1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)
Effortlessly, The Hunger Games is a strong, well-crafted film that conjures up the following references: Orwell's 1984, Stephen King's novella The Running Man, Richard Bachman's novella The Long Walk, the pageantry of the Roman gladiators fighting in the Colosseum, the nervousness and anticipation of the Vietnam War draft, the death of the young in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the loss of life in recent coal-mining disasters, the atrocities of World War Two, the hunter gods of Greek mythology, the suicidal acts of Romeo and Juliet, and the media manipulation of a televised world in Peter Weir's prescient classic film The Truman Show. But, on a deeper, rawer, more elemental level, the film ties to Shirley Jackson's chilling short story "The Lottery," tying back even as far as the book of Genesis with Abraham's sacrificing of Isaac. Ross and series author Suzanne Collins are swimming in deep water here, and the story of a young girl from District 12, disheveled, starving, hunting to keep her family alive, achieves a poignancy and an intensity from its sharp focus on the very strong, very haunted Katniss Everdeen, a feminist film icon that film has not been seen since the likes of Ellen Ripley, Clarice Starling, Trinity, and Ree Dolly. When she kills for the first time, you can see the emotional toll that it takes on her character. Ross lingers on these moments, as well as on Lawrence's expressive eyes and face to show her conflict and self-loathing. Of course, there's a muted love triangle of sorts for Katniss that is believable and understood (a shot of a character's face in the penultimate scene tells you all you need to know about disappointment, and I appreciated that Ross did that, not inserting a painful, redundant, expository conversation), a sharp satire of certain aspects of our media culture (best depicted through the garishly overdone makeup and gestures of Katniss's media handler Effie Trinket well-played by Elizabeth Banks and the Seacrestian unctuousness of the quasi-narrator/commentator on the Games, Cesar Flickerman played by Stanley Tucci), and the hold-your-breath intensity of a world designed like a video game by a team of technicians all lorded over by game designer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, welcome back, and what a beard!), who himself is lorded over by quietly menacing President Snow (Donald Sutherland, crafty and weary, always watching, always judging). The film has impressive casting that is buttressed by a quiet, warm performance by Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss's makeup and clothing artist and the great Woody Harrelson as an appropriately haunted, alcoholic ex-Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy. Harrelson does not go for broad comedy, instead trying to convey Haymitch's pain, guilt, and self-disgust with his own survival and the culture of violence and its effect on children (expertly shown in a wordless scene where Haymitch watches children fight with fake swords). Similarly, Kravitz's Cinna has a quiet grace and humanity; he seems to be one of the only characters who fully absorbs the gravity of the situation and the tragedy of Katniss's selection.
Any question as to whether Jennifer Lawrence could embody the Artemis-like, older sister-hunter-warrior Katniss Everdeen should have been settled last year based on her flinty performance as Ree Dolly in Winter's Bone. There, with the garnering of a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Lawrence played a daughter in the meth-infused backhills of the Ozarks who held her family together (absent father, catatonic mother, helpless siblings) in the face of great adversity (natural in terms of weather and terrain; familial in terms of homicidal, criminal relatives; personal in terms of wanting to abandon her family and enroll in the army while knowing that if she finds her dad, she can save their land). Her performance was epic in that film, and her shoulders are strong enough to carry the mantle of this beloved literary character. She is a credible conflicted warrior; Ross wisely foregrounds her relationship with her little sister Prim in the first fifteen minutes, as well as her ability to scorch her mother with acidic words. Katniss volunteers as tribute when her sister's name is selected for her District's representation in the fight to the death among 24 young people. There's a boy back home. There's a boy out there who has pined for her. There's media preparation and manipulation; there's training and weaponry. And then, 24 children are placed in the middle of a controlled forest environment to fight it out. The last man (or woman) standing wins everything. All others die, live on television.
In terms of storytelling, Ross does some interesting and artistic things. A conversation between two members of the ruling class opens and frames the film; a narrow focus early on gives us a look at District 12's poverty. Flashbacks move judiciously and without explanation throughout the film. One song in particular is repeated in a moving way, and the tiny details (Katniss tying herself to the tree to sleep so that she won't fall out) were all brilliant. The CGI at times took me out of the film in a Lucasian Star Wars: Episode One kind of way; I didn't think that it was necessary to show expensive shots of the capitol or CGI beasts in the third act (which lose their power to evoke a response because of their murkiness despite an absolutely terrifying jump-out of nowhere scene that the more I reflect on it seems like a cheap shot). The scenes in the Games were filmed in the gorgeous woods of North Carolina, brilliantly shot as a maze of fallen trees, moss, waterfalls, and caves. Katniss wanders through the forest, bow-clenched, and I half-expected her to bump into Daniel Day-Lewis's Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans or the band of rebels on Endor from The Return of the Jedi. The film does some very impressive things with its sonic architecture by having overlappping sound and dialogue from one scene to another. Announcements delivered during the Games are disorienting and distant. A countdown scene has an impressively disturbing sound component, jarring us and the characters. James Newton Howard's score seems unique though familiar and not too cloying or didactic. I will probably buy it. End credit songs seemed impressive and of high-quality (T-Bone Burnett delivers, again).
Action-wise, this film is a mess. Ross's previous films include Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, both adult, craftsmanlike works known for their atmosphere, fine acting, and art design, not necessarily known for their rapid-fire editing and cross-cutting and action sequences. Ross's commitment to this project being a PG-13 blockbuster for under 17 teens undercuts his ability to tell a coherent story through the eponymous violence. His handheld camera is overused and distracting at times, but I understand Ross's method of throwing the audience into the chaos of the moment to simulate Katniss's sense of being overwhelmed. However, there is a new term that I've recently become familiar with through reading a movie blog that I love entitled Battleship Pretension: chaos cinema. And, I think that The Hunger Games, sadly, falls into the category of films marred by the editing of their action sequences.
Matthias Stork defines chaos cinema as "apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle." Stork's excellent video essay on the BP website wrestles with the implications of this new type of cinema, and though I do not agree with each of his conclusions, never have I felt more in tune with the labeling of a film as one of chaos cinema than when Marc Foster attempted to use frenetic editing within action sequences to ruin the James Bond franchise with the often nonsensical Quantum of Solace and the completely incomprehensible fight scenes of Gary Ross's The Hunger Games. Often times, I had no idea who was fighting who because of the handheld camera, the avoidance of clarity, the rush of movement. The final confrontation, I felt, was undercut and destroyed by the editing; I'm still not 100% sure what happened and how the final movements went down. The editing of the violence got in the way of my understanding of it, and this is a film ABOUT watching violence and understanding it.
So, what I'm driving at is an unpopular conclusion. The Hunger Games needed to be an R rated film. The commitment to depicting the world of Panem, the tributes, and the fight to the death among children needed to honor Suzanne Collins' vision, NOT the commercial aspirations of Ross and the studio. I could see through the fight scenes, past the script and the book (which I have read) into the studio meeting where the debates swirled around "How violent can we be?" I do not want to see grotesque or exploitative violence in a film; I know that this film, like it or not, has a fan base of middle school children, and to show violence in a more intense, realistic, or comprehensible way would be very disturbing. I already experienced two young children crying and leaving during a key moment in the film, a reminder of the audience and the power of film to damage, disturb, and upset us. However, this film depicts a world where people are entertained by the viewing of violence, and not to get too meta, but we are complicit in that watching because we have paid tickets to see this film, knowing that a major portion (60+ minutes I would say) involves the hunting, stalking, trapping, and slaying of children by children as we watch. We are watching the film in the same way that the audiences of Panem are watching the Games. However, they have no filter and do not receive quick-rush editing, incomprehensible camera movement to make sure they do not see blades insert flesh, blood spurt from wounds, or the faces of those killed. In a sad way, Ross and his studio have edited and held back from us the very graphic violence that Collins used to hold a mirror up to a violent, competitive society, thus under-cutting the themes and power of this film.
I wanted to see a vision of this film and this book that honored the violence and the implications of the violence. To do that is to possibly make an even darker, less commercial, more brutal, and more savage film that would not appeal as broadly to middle school viewers. It would be to raise issues with parents and families about whether or not the film is appropriate for young people to see without adult supervision. It would cut into the box office (which seems epic and massive right now, allowing us to collectively breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that the remaining books will become films). Who is to say that by bloodying it up, pulling his camera back to depict the actual fight scenes in a way that show us who is hurting who and how, and refusing to hyper-edit into incomprehensibility, Ross would have crafted a film that was uncommercial, unsuccessful, and sank a very profitable and very creative series.
I contend that with bravery and aplomb in the editing and shooting director Gary Ross could have made a version of The Hunger Games that does not cheat its audience, skirt the issues of violence and complicity, and still retained its commercial viability. Katniss Everdeen is a legitimate heroine of the highest order, and Jennifer Lawrence has arrived. I cannot wait to see what she (and Ross) do next with this character, but my hope is that the box office from the first film will translate into more risks and more honesty in the second film. But even if not, The Hunger Games is a pretty terrific piece of thought-provoking entertainment with an impressive compression of quite a bit of backstory and characterization. Ross delivers another impressively crafted film that transcends its moment, and though not perfect, it is a stunning achievement, worthy of nearly my highest rating.