REVIEW: Jennifer Lawrence Hits Her Mark in Surprisingly Unflashy Hunger Games
Movie events have become deadly little things, highly mechanized gadgets thrown by studio marketing departments into an audience’s midst in advance; then we just stand around and wait for them to explode. The Hunger Games, adapted from the first of Suzanne Collins’ hugely successful trio of young adult novels, was decreed an event long before it became anything close to a movie: More than a year ago its studio, Lionsgate, launched a not-so-stealthy advertising campaign that made extensive use of social media to coax potential fans into convincing one another that they had to see this movie. The marketing was so nervily persuasive that you had to wonder: How could any movie – especially one that, as it turns out, is largely and surprisingly naturalistic, as opposed to the usual toppling tower of special effects – possibly hope to measure up?
The surprise of The Hunger Games isn’t that it lives up to its hype – it’s that it plays as if that hype never even existed, which may be the trickiest achievement a big movie can pull off these days. The picture takes place in a dystopian future, in a dictatorship called Panem that’s a thinly disguised version what used to be the United States. Panem’s richest and most privileged citizens live in the capitol city – called, conveniently, Capitol – while everyone else toils away in the 12 outlying districts to provide everything those Capitol dwellers might need, from food to coal to luxury goods. At some point in Panem’s history, the underlings in the districts revolted, French Revolution-style. As punishment, each district must now offer up two of its youngsters between the ages of 12 and 18, a boy and a girl chosen by lottery, to compete in a televised yearly event called the Hunger Games. The young people, called Tributes, kill one another off in an elaborately controlled stadium environment until there’s just one left standing: That kid earns accolades for his or her home district – and, more importantly, food.
As allegories go, this is a pretty obvious one, particularly in the era of the 99%, although neither Collins nor Gary Ross, director of the movie version, really needs to belabor the point: The focus, in the book and in the movie, is on the storytelling: If the larger ideas are pretty elephantine ones, at least they emerge from the story rather than obscure it with their meaty flanks. Jennifer Lawrence plays 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a denizen of the poorest section of Panem, District 12, which specializes in coal production – Katniss’ father, a miner, was killed in a mining accident, leaving the young woman to fend for the family by using her crackerjack archery skills to hunt game (illegally) in the nearby forest. When Katniss' impossibly young and extremely fragile sister Prim is chosen to compete in the Hunger Games – the announcements are made on a national holiday known, creepily, as Reaping Day – Katniss steps forward as a volunteer, desperate to take Prim’s place.
Her male counterpart is the baker’s son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, who played Laser, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s son in The Kids Are All Right), and the complication, as you might guess, is that he’s been sort-of-secretly in love with Katniss since childhood. Now the two will be life-and-death adversaries, and Katniss’ mistrust of Peeta’s motives – complicated by her own confused affections, given her exceedingly independent nature – provides the movie with some strong but delicate bone structure. The Hunger Games may offer some reasonably effective metaphorical statements about class divisions in this country -- and about the house-of-cards crassness of reality TV – but in the end, it works because of its deft handling of an even more universal theme: This is a movie about an independent-minded girl who just isn’t sure she can trust a boy, as true to the spirit of the Shirelles as it is to Greek myth.
There’s action here, too, and a great deal of vitality that feels true both to the spirit of Collins’ book and to the idea of movie entertainment as it exists – or ought to exist – outside the framework of mere movie marketing. Ross previously brought us the 1998 Pleasantville, as well as the disappointingly perfunctory 2003 Seabiscuit, and there are ways in which The Hunger Games (whose script he adapted, along with Collins and Billy Ray) feels workmanlike instead of genuinely inventive. For one thing, Ross overuses the handheld camera, particularly in scenes that are supposed to be intimate and deeply emotional: When Katniss gets Prim ready for her first Reaping Day, she tucks in the tail of the little girl’s shirt with the kind of efficient tenderness that the best big sisters have in their DNA. The family lives in what appears to be a simple wooden house, if not a shack. In the book, Collins notes that District 12 is located in what used to be called Appalachia, and if the movie doesn’t stress that outright, it at least implies as much: Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern channel the mood of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange with their muted -- though not blanched -- color palette and austere compositions. (James Newton Howard wrote the movie’s restrained score, and there’s additional music by roots-music craftsman T. Bone Burnett, which tells you something about the picture’s commitment to capturing the aura of this distinctly American landscape.) Ross’ instincts are so good that you wonder, particularly in the District 12 scenes, why he didn’t just screw the camera into the damned tripod: The stillness would have been classical and elegant and better suited to the emotional tone and texture of this part of the story.
Still, there’s so much in The Hunger Games that Ross gets right. He understands the nature of visual storytelling, trusting the audience to follow the narrative without spelling out every little thing in actual dialogue. He trusts us to pick up on telling details – for example, the lacy, little-girl anklets worn by the youngest Tribute, a sparkplug named Rue (played beautifully by a young actress named Amandla Stenberg), when she appears for her pre-competition televised interview. And The Hunger Games, mercifully, doesn’t suffer from overproductionitis. The picture, like the book it’s based on, has a number of fantastical elements – the glossy, gleaming futuristic edifices of the Capitol; a competition arena that resembles the natural world but can be controlled by technicians to create extra challenges for the participants, like rolling balls of fire and snarling creatures that are half-dog, half-lion. Even so, it relies mostly on a deceptively soothing kind of naturalism. These trees look like real trees; the sunlight certainly seems bright and strong. Their familiarity only adds to the story’s sense of menace, particularly when the going gets really ugly, as it inevitably does: At one point a crew of bloodthirsty Tributes surround a tree Katniss has climbed for safety, exhorting one of their members to “kill her.” The action in The Hunger Games is often a bit of a jumble – it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s coming from where. But Ross takes care to give the violence -- which is discreet but visceral -- the proper amount of weight. These are, after all, young people killing other young people. And one scene, in particular, conjures just the right level of Ophelia-floating-down-the-river grace -- the simplest wildflowers become a kind of benediction.
The picture makes room for a number of standout supporting actors: Stanley Tucci as an unctuous yet sympathetic games commentator; Elizabeth Banks as the fluttery, ineffectual official helper-outer Effie Trinket; Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta's boozy mentor; and Lenny Kravitz, sadly underused, as Cinna, who’s in charge of “styling” the District 12 entrants. (At one point in the pregame festivities, he puts Katniss in a dress whose fluttery, feathery skirt turns to fire as she twirls.) Wes Bentley has a turn as a smooth, unnerving semi-villain, and Donald Sutherland shows up as a malevolent elder statesman, a role he digs into with sly gusto.
But Lawrence holds the real key to the effectiveness of The Hunger Games, and she plays Katniss as the best kind of fallible heroine. Hutcherson may be teen-heartthrob material – in other words, wholly nonthreatening -- but he has the right amount of prickly sweetness to make the character of Peeta work: He can’t be too much of a sap, or you’d wonder what the hell Katniss sees in him. And as Lawrence plays her, Katniss – a sturdy girl, both physically and emotionally – deserves the best. There’s something primal about the way Katniss strides through the forest in the movie’s early scenes, stalking a deer with a rudimentary bow and arrow. She aims for the head and then, distracted by a District 12 pal (his name is Gale, and he’s played by Liam Hemsworth), misses. Lawrence has all the boldness and delicacy of her intended prey: Like that deer, she doesn’t miss a trick -- her senses are aquiver every moment. Her Katniss is both tender and fierce, a character with contours and shadows, not just a cutout-and-keep role model. When she succumbs at last to Peeta’s earnest charms, it’s as if she’s finally captured the most elusive of prey, if only temporarily: She’s at peace with herself, but her very restlessness is part and parcel of that peace. As Katniss, Lawrence never stops moving: Even in her stillness, she always hits her mark.