The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes movie review (2023)

Within this furious state of flux, a young Coriolanus Snow begins his rise to power. We know he eventually gets there, as embodied in the original films by a chilling Donald Sutherland. But Tom Blyth’s evolution into that tyrannical presidential persona is fascinating to watch, both in its grand gestures and tiny revelations. Snow goes from moneyed pretty boy destined for entitled greatness to clear-eyed manipulator intent on crafting his own fate. It is a star-making performance.

The subtlety of this supervillain origin story is what makes it so unsettling. In the script from Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, Snow asserts increasing control not through sheer brute strength but rather through simple, calculated decisions, one after another. Initially, he can tell himself he’s doing the wrong things for the right reasons; eventually, he doesn’t bother to make that bargain with himself anymore.

We see it in the way he pretends he’s still wealthy around his pretentious school friends, even though his once-prominent family has fallen on hard times as so many have. Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan) puts on airs but can barely pay the rent; cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) remains kindhearted amid the suffering. Both of these influences seem to shape the way he approaches his responsibilities as mentor to Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the District 12 tribute he must guide through the 10th annual Hunger Games.

Lucy Gray makes an impression from the first second her image is splashed on screens across the nation; the titular songbird, she stands out in her melodic method of protest, and Zegler, the “West Side Story” star, has further blossomed in her charisma. Her voice soars, of course, but it’s the notes that catch in her throat that are even more emotional.

Blyth and Zegler share a spiky chemistry that’s equal parts attraction and mistrust. Each of them realizes they can help the other not just survive but thrive, because making it out of the Hunger Games alive isn’t the only goal. Creating the most memorable spectacle is what matters most now, we learn from head gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul. Viola Davis plays this chicly sadistic figure with just the right amount of camp, and she’s the beneficiary of costume designer Trish Summerville’s most striking creations.

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