Red Sparrow, 2018.
Directed by Francis Lawrence.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Bill Camp, Joely Richardson, Kristof Konrad, Douglas Hodge, Sergei Polunin, Sakina Jaffrey, Nicole O’Neill, David Z. Miller, Makar Zaporozhskiy, Sasha Frolova, Joel de la Fuente, Thekla Reuten, Sergej Onopko, and Jeremy Irons
Ballerina Dominika Egorova is recruited to ‘Sparrow School’ a Russian intelligence service where she is forced to use her body as a weapon. But her first mission, targeting a CIA agent, threatens to unravel the security of both nations.
Red Sparrow backs the ideology that all humans are a puzzle piece and that once one comes to understand what an individual is missing, a significant other can fill that void and make them whole, attaining full control in the process. In other words, this game of espionage involving Russians and American is more fascinatingly about the psychological components that go into the art of deception and manipulation, primarily of the opposite sex. There’s an angry but fitting and memorable line where Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika fires back at her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) referring to the Sparrow School he gave her no choice to enroll into as “whore school”, and she’s not necessarily wrong, but it is a cunning delight to watch Dominki mentally pinpoint what her various male targets or superiors desire, only to act on it yielding more female empowerment than people might assume.
Reuniting with her collaborator on the three sequels to The Hunger Games blockbusters director Francis Lawrence (no relation), Red Sparrow is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews with the crucial distinction that the author of the series is actually a former CIA operative. Scripted by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road), this results in a work of fiction that feels ripped straight from the current events section of a newspaper in terms of both dialogue and relevance; according to high-ranking officials on both sides the Cold War never died, instead, it shattered into multiple fragments with the pieces still being picked up and fought over today. Furthermore, considering that the book was released in 2013, it’s safe to say that the parallels to the real world (most notably from the CIA’s involvement with Russian moles) are not overtly intentional, but as time went on and filming proceeded, Red Sparrow as a movie, is now releasing at a point that will propel its level of intrigue.
With that said, I maintain that the familiar thriller aspects along with traditional genre questions such as “Who is the mole” or “Is she REALLY developing genuine feelings for the man that is her mission priority” play second fiddle to unsettling sequences showcasing Charlotte Rampling’s Matron deliver intimately perverse seminars on how to strip oneself’s of all sexuality, learning how to trick the body into enjoying sex for the sake of loyalty to both mission and country. Also, Dominika’s effectiveness at narrowing down what men want allows her to turn the tables on everyone from average creepers to full-blown rapists (one of the best scenes in the entire movie). It’s a form of weaponized lecturing I’ll take any day of the week over generic physically enduring courses meant to test things ranging from stamina to all-around strength. Also, due to the fact that everything Dominika does is for the health and well-being of her own mother, there is a sink or swim attitude she conducts herself with out in the field that gives the impression that even if she blows her cover once or fails a single objective, their lives are thrown into immediate danger.
Dominika is also surrounded by male friends and foes, meaning that she must tread the line between obeying those higher in the command chain and executing what she does best. The cinematography by Jo Willems (another collaborator from The Hunger Games) likes to remind audiences of the dangerous man’s world our Russian honeypot heroine is entangled in by framing shots of Dominika and men in control, such as her uncle, in a way where height differences are unmissable; Schoenaerts towers over Lawrence symbolizing who is running the show. Additionally, and I don’t want to spoil it, but early on is a fairly horrific attempted rape (to be fair, there are actually two) that eerily mimics much of the recent confessions from survivors of sexual abuse, specifically done by the despicable Harvey Weinstein. It’s hard not to think about trending movements and hope that by the end of Red Sparrow Dominika is the one in a position of power.
Unfortunately, there are sections here and there throughout the middle of the film that meanders, giving the characters little to do. It’s not a major spoiler to give away that Dominika begins falling for American spy Nash played by Joel Edgerton (by the way, it’s also worth throwing out that Jennifer Lawrence puts on just as believable a Russian accent as Joel Edgerton does transforming from Australian to American, which is to say they’re pretty good only slipping up back into their natural voice occasionally to start off some sentences), and although the writing and direction does an admirable job at keeping us guessing whether the romance is genuine or not, it means that large chunks of the movie go by without any bombshell knowledge gained. At the end, when the mole is finally revealed with bare minimum motive explanations, it’s somewhat tough to give a damn. Generally, all of the supporting players are in dire need of more characterization, but the catch is that there isn’t much room to expand on them.
There is still fun to be had with piecing together loose ends of the narrative, but it’s the kind of movie that either will come across more intelligently crafted on a rewatch or completely fall apart after further analysis. The problem is that I have no desire to revisit Red Sparrow; it’s a worthwhile and entertaining view full of twists and turns, but it’ll be remembered most for its feminist qualities. On that note, it’s worth mentioning that Jennifer Lawrence takes some brutal abuse over the course of the 140-minute running time (it’s on par and arguably worse than her recently received pain in mother!) and that the torture scenes are handled delicately so that they’re not presented as over-the-top, gory torture porn, but graphic just enough to get the point across. Many of them are surprisingly short and certainly won’t be forgotten soon (especially a disturbing segment with a skin removing device).
All things accounted for, Red Sparrow is a hard recommend; Jennifer Lawrence continues to tackle daring material more in line with her phenomenal breakout performance in Winter’s Bone after having wrapped up her ultra-popular young adult franchise; she counters physical abuse and patriarchy with the tools taught by her own government. The introduction sees her beloved dancing career ended by a nasty leg injury, but following her first espionage mission, she is an infinitely stronger woman in both body and mind, and really, that’s the world’s best weapon. Red Sparrow is timely, sexy, smart, empowering, and eye-wincingly bloody, most importantly leaving moviegoers interested in watching future adaptations of the books’ sequels. In some ways, it’s reminding of Black Widow’s backstory in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that for whatever reason Disney has not given us in the form of a solo entry yet.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com