Jason Schwartzman, meanwhile, offers some delightful zingers as schmaltzy emcee/weatherman Lucky Flickerman, a predecessor to Stanley Tucci’s blue-haired game show host Caesar Flickerman. His bemused mantra, “See what happens when you do stuff?” is an all-too-relevant commentary on our attention-hungry times. And the retro-futurism of the mid-century modern TV studio suggests a promise of prosperity that winning the Hunger Games could never possibly provide.

Peter Dinklage grounds these events, which range from the silly to the savage, as Casca Highbottom (gotta love Collins’ creative character names). He’s the dean of the Academy who helped develop the Hunger Games in the first place; now, he’s the voice of reason, suggesting maybe they’re not such a good idea anymore. Dinklage brings a down-to-earth, wry wisdom, which is much needed in this wild world. The kills feel more brutal here because these kids don’t have to endure complicated challenges to complete them; they just have to pick up a weapon and aim for each other. (Some repurposed delivery drones also up the level of startling violence.) That’s where the clever bond between Snow and Lucy Gray comes into play. And because they’ve formed a deeper connection than most mentors and tributes, the film’s third chapter feels much more fraught.

Here, we see how the depth of Snow’s dark side fully reveals itself. There’s a shift in his posture, a hardening in his eyes. Lucy Gray, meanwhile, knows how to use her folksy charm for maximum beguiling effect. Whereas the energy may have felt a bit uneven in the previous two chapters—titled “The Mentor” and “The Prize”—part three, “The Peacekeeper,” makes a bold departure in terms of location, emotion, and tone. It moves out of the austerity of the capitol and into a pastoral forest setting, where returning cinematographer Jo Willems creates a lush vibe that’s both romantic and dangerous. Here’s where the 157-minute film slows and gets quieter, making room for exquisite tension between two people who dared to trust each other.

“Snow always lands on top” is the longtime credo for Coriolanus and his family. The question of how it falls, and whether it sticks, makes “The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” a surprisingly suspenseful prequel.

In theaters today.

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