A young President Snow leads this story, ages before his rivalry with Katniss Everdeen and the eventual fall of the Capital. Set shortly after the Dark Days- the war between the Capital and the Districts- the film is set in the Capital as it is recovering and punishing the Districts for their uprising by entering their children into the annual Hunger Games. Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) works to earn the Plinth prize, a coveted award given to the best student in the Capital’s University worth tremendous amounts of money, however, with a change of procedure, now the best students must become the best mentors as they turn the tributes of the 10th Hunger Games into spectacle. The film follows the development of the Games as they have lost popularity and viewership. To reinvigorate the popularity of the Games among the Capital citizens, the mentors are required to transform the tributes into public personas. This new angle to the Games encourages audiences to pick favorites, place bets, and invest their emotions into the lives of the tributes. Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a performer from District 12 is assigned to Coriolanus Snow (also called Corio) but as the Games approach, ethics are questioned, love is aflame, and lives are put at risk.
The film raises questions about the morality of Panam’s post-war society. The hunger Capital citizens feel for watching the Districts endure punishments is critiqued very clearly in the film. The director, Francis Lawrence, fully leans into these critiques and questions by making The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes the most vicious Hunger Games film to date. Children brutally engaging in combat with one another is violent and cruel and Lawrence makes sure to communicate that to the audience with high tension scenes in the arena. The inhumanity is reinforced by the Captial’s consumption of these games. The new forms of engagement with the Games provide Capital citizens with opportunities to interact with the tributes and become attached to their favorite tributes. These very actions feed right into Suzanne Collins’s critique of spectacle, a theme that has been present from the very beginning of her books. The ethics of the Hunger Games are questioned by Coriolanus’s friend Sejanus (Josh Andrés Rivera)- who is made to be one of the hearts of the film- as he calls out the monstrosity of the Games and the Capital. Kindness and love are elements of the story but are smothered by betrayal, lies, and violence which lead the the eventual success and survival of Corio.
Tom Blyth gives a stellar performance that captures the two-sided nature of Corio Snow, fully living up to the “Snake” persona that the title references. He is a friend you want to trust but as the tide turns, the ulterior motives and the dark side that motivates him, begin to reveal themselves. Corio takes to leaving a path of destruction, harming anyone and anything in the way of his prize. He is manipulative and uses this to his advantage as he does not divert from his fate. He is a snake and the film does a fantastic job of communicating the animalistic nature of his character, making the audience want to empathize with him, but also providing cautionary warnings as doing so will only end in pain.
Rachel Zegler is at the top of her game. She is striking as Lucy Gray Baird, delivering punches in dialogue, but also establishing herself as a serious threat in the Games and outside. Rachel Zegler even explained how her character is the anti-Katniss Everdeen, stating, “Lucy Gray is a performer forced to fight and Katniss is a fighter forced to perform.” Zegler’s performances are top-tier and teach the audience so much about the character of Lucy Gray. Zegler hits every note and the meaningful lyrics behind her songs hit even harder as they are the inspiration for some of the most emotional, heart-wrenching scenes of the film and the start of the Hunger Games’s new angle.
Other standout characters and performances include Tigress (Hunter Schafer), Professor Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), the evil Dr. Gaul (Viola Davis), Sejanus Josh Andrés Rivera, and Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman). Hunter Schafer is as gorgeous as ever, playing Corio’s cousin, Tigress, who supports him through everything. Peter Dinklage’s Professor Highbottom is a negative character who wants to put countless obstacles in Corio’s way, eventually making an enemy out of him. Viola Davis is truly menacing as her portrayal of Dr. Gaul is equivalent to a wanderer poking a bear in a cage. Dr. Gaul encourages Corio’s actions and subtly manipulates him into unforgivable territory. Josh Andrés Rivera is the keystone to the emotion in this film as the friendship between Sejanus and Coriolanus keeps the film moving forward with the stakes remaining extremely high. With all the brutality pictured in the film, a surprising amount of laughs also accompanied it via Jason Schwartzman’s portrayal of Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman who is the host of the 10th Hunger Games and a relative of the well-known Caesar Flickerman. With a stunning leading cast and supporting cast, the film’s characters are given depth that supports the intensity of the story.
With an action-packed first two-thirds, the film takes a surprising twist towards the last hour that shifts the tone into a sort of psychological thriller as fear of betrayal looms over the characters. The audience patiently waits for something bad to happen, for someone to betray the other. Paranoia sets in as characters try to fulfill desires that coincide with their morals, but the impending foliage of their plans makes the film intense and heightens the stressors provided. Corio wants to help himself, Sejanus wants to right his wrongs and help others, and Lucy Gray wants freedom. The overarching conflict between good, bad, and morally gray collapses in on itself, leaving the audience with an ending that keeps one thinking.
The film is concrete, fascinating, and artistically well-done for a big blockbuster, but it leaves many to want more with its rushed ending. Nonetheless, Panam has fascinating stories to tell and characters to explore. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes puts viewers back into the dystopian world that so many seem to enjoy. The intensity, fantasy, and relatability presented within this story continuously have audiences coming back for more.
Written by Marli Dorn