Suzanne Collins‘ dystopian world is challenging to stay in, even while it’s fictional and we’re on the outside, far from the brutal arena games, but perhaps that’s what makes it so riveting. As much as you want to look away, you can’t stop turning the page or taking your eyes off the screen, hoping for multiple victors, although you know that won’t be the case. Thereby, what she accomplishes with The Hunger Games series results in fascinating character studies that exhibit human complexities at their most innocent and jaded stages of life. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the latter, taking audiences through the kind of origin story that doesn’t always work for myriad reasons, yet it’s utterly captivating during this battle.
Directed by Francis Lawrence, with a screenplay from Michael Arndt and Michael Lesslie, the film succeeds through a striking three-act spectacle that hauntingly chronicles an innocent boy’s life to dictatorship and indisputable villainy. The film’s pacing is overall great, fumbling only when we get to the third act, making it feel a bit longer than necessary. Still, there’s no moment where the performances aren’t enamoring. Like in the original films, every star is acutely cast to showcase far more than the words on the page, allowing us to see the defining components of their characters that would otherwise be buried under the amount of action. And with this in mind, so much of the reason The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes works is entirely because it’s a character study that underscores the essence of every choice.
The Audience Isn’t Meant to Sympathize With President Snow in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Villain origin stories don’t always work because, ultimately, we shouldn’t be seeing them. They shouldn’t be the stories we feature when there are thousands of people whose names should go up in lights instead. However, they sometimes wondrously expand the universe. In this case, it’s the people around Snow and how we get to the rebellions.
No one’s born good or evil, and there’s always a motive, but—still murder. It doesn’t matter what leads a villain down these treacherous paths; what matters is that they consistently choose to destroy and terrorize human lives. And there’s no denying that Coriolanus Snow is a product of his own choices. We see much of this through Tom Blyth’s astounding performances as his character goes from a man with hope in his eyes to a villain with the iciest gaze. The character we meet in the first shot versus the one we leave behind isn’t the same man—one is on the precipice of darkness, eager to do whatever is necessary for a win, maybe could be saved, while the other is so far gone there’s no getting him back.
Additionally, at no point throughout the film, even while Snow is grieving for his friend’s downfall brought on by his betrayal does the scene evoke lasting sadness. Instead, we’re left watching manipulation at its absolute peak. In truth, Blyth does an unbelievable job of showing us that the pain is genuine, but it’s not remorseful—it’s a rare concoction of grief and pain and an exhilaration cobbled into a single body. It’s addicting for him. It becomes clear early on that despite the fraction of humanity that may be left in him, Snow doesn’t know when to stop when he strikes. Hurting people hurt people, and he thrives off the pain he causes others, especially if he somehow gains empathy, too. And ultimately, the Hunger Games are a twisted arrangement of harnessing empathy for all the wrong reasons that start with selfish motivations before it all finally ends with people choosing humanity over entertainment. It worsens with Snow before it ever gets better with Katniss Everdeen, and the poetic heartbreak in that alone merits pages and pages of analysis.
There are countless moments still, especially in the second act, where Blyth and Rachel Zegler’s chemistry is so electrically charged and vulnerable that you doubt for a moment if we’re watching a story about a vicious tyrant. Because when it comes to Lucy Gray, Snow’s feelings are sincere, at least where the games are concerned—it’s not entirely for his win and everything that he accumulates, but he needs her to survive because he’s enthralled by her, really and truly. And you wonder if that can be the case for a long while—if she’ll be enough to heal his heart. Yet, the film boldly conveys that no one can change anyone who doesn’t want to transform themselves. The ambiguity of her arc likewise makes it abundantly clear that she isn’t tied to anyone else’s story or decisions, but she is her own songbird, choosing for herself until the very end.
The only thing people have are their own choices, and President Snow, of all characters in and out of the arena, has always had his agency. He’s been in sweeping control, even when it appeared as though he might crack by the fears brought on by his actions and the modicum of pain he carries. Nevertheless, it’s also engrossing how a film meant to highlight the villain’s perspective does a deliriously wonderous job of ensuring that we understand how his mindset works and why. The ever-worsening malice in his calculated decisions unravels slowly while he explores every avenue, trying to ensure that he shines even when there’s no spotlight on him. Lawrence’s directing choices and Blyth’s thoughtful performances leave nothing behind but a chilling reminder that this is the mere start of his vicious authority.
It’s also imperative to pinpoint Hunter Schafer’s performances and the enormous amount the actress accomplishes during her brief appearances on screen. She begins as Snow’s anchor and ends perhaps as his greatest victim—the one silently betrayed most by the person he’s become, turning into the one thing she never wanted him to be. Tigris is a quietly integral part of the original trilogy, and Schafer’s performances in these early stages show us why. She reminds viewers of the humanity still left within the capitol, and she stands as hope in the face of darkness. She adores Snow, that much is clear from day one—they’re family after all, but she’s the first to see the boy she knew die by his own choices, resulting in one of the most evocative scenes in the film when she tells him he looks like his father. It’s an effective callback that cements perilous darkness on the horizon.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would have been even better, split into two parts like Mockingjay initially because the meat of this story is too expansive to cram into an almost three-hour film. While stars like Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Josh Andrés Rivera, and the entire cast do a fantastic job with the material they’re given, having more of them would’ve been astounding. Still, it’s undoubtedly the best thing since Catching Fire. Full of standout performances from the entire cast and an affecting story about the lengths people are willing to go to not just for survival but for power, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is an impressively haunting character study.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is now playing exclusively in theaters.