Get ready to go back to the beginning where it all began as a tale of power and ambition rises to the surface in the dystopian thriller The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, and the result is a crafty and intense character study that results in a gripping watch for audiences.
Years before he becomes the tyrannical president of Panem, 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) remains the last hope for his fading lineage. With the 10th annual Hunger Games fast approaching, the young Snow becomes alarmed when he’s assigned to mentor Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) from District 12. Uniting their instincts for showmanship and political savvy, they race against time to ultimately reveal who’s a songbird and who’s a snake.
In 2012, the box office was lit on fire with the debut of the science-fiction, dystopian thriller The Hunger Games, which launched Jennifer Lawrence into superstardom and led to one of the biggest-ever blockbuster franchises. A key part to the success of this vision was noted filmmaker Francis Lawrence who shepherded The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 into production and who now returns to helm the ambitious prequel, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes which tells the origin story of the authoritative and ruthless Coriolanus Snow, the man destined to rule the nation of Panem. Lawrence’s vision for The Hunger Games was a key part of its success, and here, he takes a different tact with the story. His focus leads to a dark and conflict-inducing story that tells a story of power corrupting and which works best through its character-driven narrative.
The key focus of the story is driven around the central character of Coriolanus Snow, an ambitious and visionary young man willing to do whatever it takes to capture the former glory of his faded family name. Newcomer Tom Blyth is spot-on in the part. Blyth’s performance as Snow is commanding and malleable. While one could never suggest that Snow has any measure of empathy in him, his Machiavellian nature is shaped by the film’s events. Observant and calculating, he can see the larger picture at play, and he’ll do anything to ensure he gets what’s his. Blyth’s performance is stoic and strong, and he has the appearance and manner of a young Caesar in the role. And there’s something truly Shakespearian about his performance in the part.
Playing opposite Blyth’s Snow is Rachel Zegler as the free-spirited Lucy Gray Baird, who is thrown into the 10th annual Hunger Games through no choice of her own, and she’s frightfully independent. Ziegler offers up a completely different kind of character and adopts a particularly heavy Southern drawl for the character that marks her out as unique in the cast. Lucy Gray is also a completely opposite character to Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, leading to an unexpected experience for cinema audiences. Zegler also shares a developing chemistry with Blyth, and there’s a natural style of performance shared between the two of them that keeps things interesting on screen.
Bringing a sense of menace and evil to the screen is EGOT-winning actress Viola Davis, who gives a delightfully wicked performance as head gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul. With her chilling eyes and Mengele-like stare, Dr. Gaul is a chilling antagonist that both Coriolanus and Lucy Grey must contend with, and as she’s known to Davis is a scene-stealer whenever she appears on screen. Next to Davis stands celebrated thespian Peter Dinklage as Casca “Cas” Highbottom, Dean of the Academy, and a man who bears a grudge against the Snow family name. Dinklage’s Highbottom is an omniscient presence in the picture, and as always, his is a commanding performance.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a dark and brooding watch, and it leans into the harshness of the film’s subject matter. Themes of conflict and the extremes of human nature play out, and Lawrence focuses on crafting a grand and lavish tragedy that the bard himself would marvel at. Complex and taut interpersonal relationships are at the heart of the story, and the action almost takes a step back to the scheming and treachery of our characters and the mind games that they play with one another. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is also an extremely lavish and opulent watch, and its audacious scale adds to the potency of the picture.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a film that took me by surprise, as it will audiences, and it’s a cinematic watch full of intelligence and drama that marks it as an original piece within the greater lore of The Hunger Games.
Image: Roadshow Films