In a way, Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout, Oscar-nominated lead in 2010’s Winter’s Bone helped prepare her to take on Hollywood’s latest hyperventilating page-to-screen franchise The Hunger Games, based on the Suzanne Collins bestselling trilogy. As Bone’s Ree Dolly, Lawrence disappeared into the part of a courageous and resourceful young woman trying to keep her family together in the Ozarks (a mountain region heavily marked by poverty and an overwhelming sense of desolation), when her father skips out and leaves them to fend for themselves.
Fast-forward to 2012, and Lawrence is brilliantly stepping into the shoes of another brave, resourceful soul in Katniss Everdeen, the strong-willed force in the fatherless household she shares with her timid younger sister and delicate mother in Panem. But where the Ozarks forms part of contemporary American geography, Panem is a fictitious dystopian realm in the not-too-distant future where the panoramic Capitol rules its districts with an iron fist, keeping the oppressed, revolt-prone citizens in line with the annual Hunger Games, a violent spectator sport that sees a pair of youngsters from each of the 12 districts pitted against each other in a viciously brutal game of endurance and survival – while the rest of Panem watches the spectacle unfold on gigantic screens.
When her kid sister is selected to represent their district in the latest incarnation of the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place and embarks on a rigorous training regimen along with her male counterpart Peeta (played by The Kids Are All Right’s Josh Hutcherson with wide-eyed charm).
As deftly directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), who collaborated on the screenplay with Collins and Billy Ray, the movie delivers an edge-of-your-seat exercise in heart-pounding action and anxiety, which is only heightened by the gritty violence that plays out onscreen once the Games begin. Think machete-wielding teens hacking each other to death. In other words, as disturbing as this truth may be for some, it’s really murder for sport. The film itself, however, is a livewire, full of electricity and thrills and emotional heft and strong performances from a cast led by Lawrence and Hutcherson.
As Katniss and Peeta (who strangely find time to romantically connect amidst the mayhem), Lawrence and Hutcherson make for a likeable, attractive pair. You can’t help but root for them as they strive to stay alive in the cruel jungle among their ruthless rivals and bring pride to their district. Aiding them in their preparations for the bloodbath are the comical mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson); the colourful chaperone Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks); and Lenny Kravitz, who perfectly embodies the calming essence of stylist Cinna.
Rounding out the starry supporting cast are Donald Sutherland as the white-bearded President Snow; Wes Bentley (American Beauty) as the wicked gamesmaker Seneca Crane; Stanley Tucci as a high-spirited talk-show host Caesar Flickerman; and Liam Hemsworth as the handsome Gale, a close friend of Katniss back home.
Though its unsettling subject matter may prove a turn-off for some, The Hunger Games is an enormously satisfying winner. A frequently gripping look at love, poverty, oppression and hope in a hopeless place, the film is a compelling mashup of brow-raising provocation and high-stakes entertainment that’s beautifully designed (the costumes and scenery are often dazzling) and brilliantly executed. Kill or be killed; that’s no way to exist. But it’s an all-too authentic reflection of the modern-day world, where hope is the only thing stronger than fear.