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The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)

Posted on the 23 March 2012 by Jake Cole @notjustmovies
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)The characters of The Hunger Games all have dirty fingernails. This is the primary insight to be intuited from director Gary Ross' incessant close-ups on the dirtied children culled from futuristic districts to fight each other to the death in a lasting reminder of the cost of rebellion. Sadly, fingernails are about the only thing I could make out in frenzied maelstrom of splintered images Ross assembles in sub-Bourne fashion. He's dealing with tricky material—the grisly killing of adolescents for sport—and forced to deliver a PG-13 rating to boot. He responds with a form of compromise: he gets to show teenagers dying horribly by making their demises so utterly incoherent that one cannot be sure anything's happened at all until the camera shows the tiniest splash of blood.
The shakycam mania of Ross' direction frustrated me more than usual because, to my surprise, I found myself engaged by the material. I haven't yet read Suzanne Collins' source novel, though I went straight to the nearest bookstore afterward to pick up a copy. Perhaps in her prose I'll find a more nuanced treatment of the themes, one that gives any kind of space to the material and lets the true horror of the titular games sink in rather than be roughly pushed along with all haste. And if nothing else, I'd like to get a fuller portrait of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the insipidly named but instantly memorable protagonist who seems to be locked into opposition with certain sexist trends in young female characters as much as she is 23 other teenagers.
Lawrence mines the Ozark-hardened toughness of her Ree Dolly from Winter's Bone in portraying Katniss. The two characters even share a certain common ground: both come from rural, hilly areas suffering from extreme poverty, and both must care for their young siblings and deadbeat mothers after losing their fathers to the harsh realities of their homes. The Capitol's deliberate neglect, even punishment of District 12 does not seem too exaggerated a change from the neglect shown to our present Ozarks. (After reading the start of the book after seeing the movie, I see that District 12 is actually set in what was once Appalachia.) One look at this young woman, even before we see her effortlessly shooting down birds with a bow, and it's clear she is independent, resourceful and strong.
So emotionally tough and protective of her family is Katniss that when her 12-year-old sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), is selected to compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss makes a nearly unprecedented move in volunteering in the girl's place. The event where this takes place, the Reaping, is the film's highlight. When Ross cuts to third parties in the rest of the film, he tends to show the audience the Capitol perspective, that of the screaming, bloodthirsty mob rapturously tuning in to the violence. But the Reaping is quiet and grim, the air static with fear as a tarted-up member of the Capitol (Elizabeth Banks, unrecognizable with so much powder and eye shadow on that she can barely open her eyes) takes the stage to pull a male and female name from bowls. Despite the speed with which the film arrives at this moment (to say nothing of everyone knowing what's about to happen), the calling of Prim's name is a gut-punch, to the point that one cannot recover in time to cheer for Katniss stepping in for her sister. The respectful silence that meets Katniss' sacrifice is likewise more powerful than the wildest cheering of adoring Capitol fans.
It's the one dose of somber maturity before the film moves into the disgusting realm of the Capitol and the lesiure class that resides in it. The Hunger Games themselves are clearly extracted from our current fascination with violent sports and reality television. Before the Reaping, Katniss' friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) says, "If no one watches, they don't have a game," but his words sound naïve even in this world, where so many already say the same of the Kardashians or Charlie Sheen. "It's a television show," cautions one character, and it certainly functions like one. When Katniss and District 12's male tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) arrive at the Capitol to begin training, they are mentored in fashion and personality as much as survival skills and combat; the slogan of the Hunger Games is, "May the odds be ever in your favor," but it soon becomes clear that winning the hearts of the public can help tip those odds. All that's missing is Ryan Seacrest cutting to a series of increasingly infuriating commercial breaks.
These pre-Games scenes in the Capitol (as well as returns to the Capitol during the contest) mercilessly skewer fascination with unknowns thrust into instant celebrity and the way that the government utilizes that simpering mob love to maintain order. Some of the best scenes involve Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), the gamemaker, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland), discussing the implications of Katniss' resonant popularity. Crane, who thinks of the ratings, loves the attention she gets, arguing, "Everyone loves an underdog." "I don't," responds the tyrant instantly, and for obvious reasons. So long as the Games are a cynically jubilant affair emceed by a stiff-coiffed, bleach-toothed crowd-pleaser (Stanley Tucci), they keep the crowds docile. But when players start breaking the rules and influencing viewers, everything can change.
If I say that I enjoy so much of what goes on outside the limits of the arena more than the Games themselves, that is because, again, the event is shot so spastically that it is impossible to get anything out of them. By using the flurry of editing and handheld close-ups to prevent the audience from getting a disturbing, full view of a child's death, the director also robs the carnage of its emotional impact. He's right to think that actually seeing a child be murdered by others his or her age would be repellent; that's the point. Instead, the violence is divorced from its meaning, allowing the film's audience to largely play the role of the gawking Capitol crowds watching on their own big screens, rooting for their favorite to emerge the champion.
Compare the visceral rush of the carnage in the area to Woody Harrelson's character, Haymitch, a former winner of the Games. Some of the other kids fighting against Peeta and Katniss are presented as so haughty and sadistic that one can only hope for their deaths, but the ostensibly comic bitterness and alcoholism of Haymitch shows the endpoint of victory in these Games. He's the only true insight into the psychological effect of murdering up to 23 people for the delight of a crowd, and he's presented as comic relief.
It makes me pine for the wonderful finale to the Harry Potter film franchise, in which Rowling's post-battle celebration was replaced with a solemn mourning for the dead and a vacant, ragged sense of relief tacitly shared among the survivors. It displayed a respect for the dead sorely needed here, not merely to give the deaths weight but to underscore Katniss' efforts to rise above this abhorrent system. Even the act of defiance that closes the 74th Annual Hunger Games lacks the force it should because of the meaninglessness what's happened in the arena. Ross ends up treating Katniss not as the character she is but the icon she's become, and in so doing he robs The Hunger Games of the darkness and tension it is clearly meant to elicit. There should be no sense of joy in Katniss' quest, even if she makes it out of that arena alive; sadly, The Hunger Games is so ready to rejoice in its protagonist's victories that it wastes its terrific premise.
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)

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