Rarely has a good film set about sabotaging itself as readily as The Hunger Games does.  Panem, the world of the Hunger Games, is one of constant menace, whether it’s the poverty-row lifestyle of heroine Katniss Everdeen’s home district, the political intrigues of the opulent Capitol, or the stabbings/snappings/maulings that occupy the Hunger Games’ brutal festivities.  We are dealing with children forced into the political underbelly of a dystopian future that makes them fight to the death, and that tension is the strongest element in Suzanne Collins’ original novel – it goes to raw places that Collins’ young-adult peers (I’m thinking the Twilight and Harry Potter books) wouldn’t dare touch.

Yet the movie keeps us at arms’ length, thanks to an aesthetic choice from director Gary Ross.  Working with Clint Eastwood’s regular cinematographer Tom Stern (he’s been with Eastwood since 2002’s Blood Work), Ross degrades his widescreen frame, creating a desaturated and – here’s the problem – forever-jittery image.  The camera bobs and weaves and shakes and blurs and spins, so much so that it’s not the violence that makes you sick: it’s motion sickness.

Ross shakes and scatters you so much, you just want to give up looking.  I can understand his decision to fragment the action scenes; we are dealing, after all, with the delicate matter of children killing other children, and from what little we can make out when the Hunger Games begin in earnest, Ross would get an automatic R-rating (if not the collective scorn of this nation’s parents) were he to mount his camera down and calmly record the bloodshed (that said, I quietly cheered when Ross cut to one overhead wide shot in the midst of an otherwise unintelligible three-person brawl).

What I can’t abide is Ross and Stern packing everything within that same jiggly frame.  The first seventy-five minutes deny us establishing shots and force the actors into narrow close-ups that don’t convey their respective physicalities, and these changes do damage to the book’s strongest conceit: that we are in Katniss’ head the whole time, processing her world at the same moments she does.  This is a story dependent on location – Katniss defines herself through her interactions with the spaces around her – yet we never quite grasp these spaces ourselves. Why Ross pushed this look so far is beyond me; he shot his previous films – the vastly underrated Pleasantville and Seabiscuit – with a formal, classically composed eye, and I wish he’d bring some of that technique to the calm before the storm, that he’d trust us to see how fraught the world of The Hunger Games is without a galestorm of camera activity doing our job instead.

If The Hunger Games were a bad movie overall, I’d write off the whole thing – camera gaffes and all – and be done with it.  Here’s the thing: it’s not bad.  Despite the visual issues I have, The Hunger Games is exciting and well crafted and a little risky, and not just because of the violent subject matter.  Ross and his screenwriters (Shattered Glass‘s Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins) pace the film nicely; a lesser picture would have a minimum of preamble before the Games themselves, but this one provides over an hour of nicely textured supporting performances from Wes Bentley, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Lenny Kravitz (if nothing else, Ross deserves credit for getting good, unmannered work from Bentley and Kravitz) and takes its time immersing us in Panem.   It’s a funhouse version of contemporary America, one where the poor outnumber the rich yet are too disenfranchised to rise up, one where the Almighty Image takes precedence over common decency (think today’s “Celebutantte” culture cranked to eleven: everyone with money is festooned in garish clothes/makeup and has had ghastly plastic surgery done).  The political implications come easily, and I’m impressed that this popular children’s tale doesn’t shy away from such tough concepts.

Best of all is Jennifer Lawrence, whose subtle work as Katniss deserves comparison with her Academy Award-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone.  The filmmakers have eschewed the book’s first-person-narrative frame, so Lawrence doesn’t have the benefit of voice-over dialogue or much spoken exposition to help convey her inner turmoil.  She doesn’t need them; with a minimum of frills, you always know how Katniss is thinking and feeling.  Lawrence uses her physicality to paint a portrait: it’s in the way she tracks a potential enemy in the Games how she crawls out of her skin during one of the Capitol’s lavish publicity events.  At twenty-two, she already possesses the empathetic stillness of a Glenn Close or a Clint Eastwood, where just the act of watching tells us volumes (that’s why Lawrence didn’t work in X-Men: First Class – the full-body makeup denied us those minute emotional shifts).

Lawrence’s silence also helps smooth out the book’s least appealing element: the moony, sort-of love triangle between Katniss, her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth, Chris’ little brother), and her fellow Tribute (read: combatant in the Hunger Games) Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).  Katniss’ first-person perspective meant we got a lot of emotional hand-wringing about which boy she liked more and if Peeta was just pretending to like her to gain an advantage in the Game and if she was just pretending to like him to win fans (it’s all so High School Drama), but the movie turns that noise down to a low din.  Through Lawrence’s actions and body language, we get little flickers of these feelings, but they never overwhelm the focus, providing instead gentle subtext.

And if the visual stamp were less obtrusive, the good stuff about The Hunger Games could take center stage. For all its flaws, the book gets inside of you; Collins never looks away from Katniss, even as she descends ever further into savagery.  The movie?  It inspires respect, both for tackling such subject matter and for Jennifer Lawrence’s brilliant lead performance. But you don’t feel it – the camera won’t let you.

Culture Movie Review: THE HUNGER GAMES Trips Over Its Own Cinematographer