Here’s a mystery like the pyramids or Easter Island’s rock faces: How does Jennifer Lawrence dignify every film she is in? Toward the end of this final Hunger Games installment, Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen throws stuff at a cat and then cries. Not just tears but a gulping, sobbing, and passionate outpour. She even drools, something I’ve never seen in a movie before. Somehow it becomes elegant, believable and, at the same time, manages to ground the crazy apocalyptic epic in her human face. In short, Lawrence is how these beloved books became real on the screen.
Other performances matter in this reinvigorated conclusion in which Katniss finally takes the deadly game to evil overlord Snow (Donald Sutherland), besting all the obstacles and butcheries of the goofy-mannered capital city. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta finally awakes from his sullen but whiny heartthrob performance. Brainwashed in Mockingjay, Part 1, he returns to the plot with actual fire and a deadly edge. And, of course, everybody will watch Philip Seymour Hoffman onscreen for the last time forever.
The film is shot much too grimly but ultimately satisfies in ways most critics don’t seem to appreciate. What was always missing in the films is the dramatic sense of hunger that ran through Suzanne Collins’s novels — people are either begging for burnt bread or eating pastries on their way to slaughter. It’s a book about last meals. But the moviemakers wisely turned it into something more like a Hero with a Thousand Faces saga. Katniss is a female Luke Skywalker, plucked randomly from the outback and sent into the center of the corrupt Panem with its pseudo-Roman fable names. She’s the reluctant linchpin holding her family and civilization together. (She’s also smart: Like the Who, she won’t get fooled again.) Millions love these books, and they ought to love the movies, too. Warrior courage can explode from a naïve but honest girl, it says. Maybe it’s just Jennifer Lawrence talking, but it seems possible to me.