Film Review – Red Sparrow
Red Sparrow (2018) seems to be as interested in Jennifer Lawrence’s body than the characters in it.
Lawrence plays Dominika, an accomplished Russian ballerina who – after a freak accident deprives her of her dancing dreams – somehow ends up as a super secret agent in the Russian intelligence service. She’s recruited by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) who promises that her ailing mother (Joely Richardson) will be looked after. Talk about “family love” – instead of helping his niece and sister in law out of the kindness of his heart; Vanya only does so with the catch that Dominika does his bidding. I don’t claim to be an expert on Russian politics or social issues, but if helping your family means becoming a secret agent, well, wouldn’t everyone be a secret agent? It wouldn’t make things all that secretive, would it?
After agreeing to this career change, Dominika is sent to a special training facility run by a taskmaster known only as “Matron” (Charlotte Rampling). The key theme of the program involves recruits immersing themselves completely into the roles they’re assigned to play. What this means, of course, is giving up your body to keep your identity hidden. Some of this includes, but not limited to, stripping in front the class, engaging in sexual trysts with strangers (of both sexes), and basically numbing oneself to the weaknesses of the flesh. The recruits are turned into “Sparrows,” or “masters of seduction.” One key showdown has Dominika facing off against a male recruit – both naked – and seeing which will fall for temptation first. Sheesh, and I thought my sex ed classes were uncomfortable!
There’s a strange hilarity in how bluntly director Francis Lawrence and writer Justin Haythe (adapting Jason Matthews’ novel) handle this material. The facility is basically a sex school, with Dominika as the prized student. I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit when Charlotte Rampling’s Matron demonstrated how to titillate a target by massaging their unmentionables and speaking in a lower register. But the tone Lawrence goes for is too serious for a plot that wants to be startling. This has all the makings of an exploitation flick, but it goes about its machinations with a straight face. No one here appears to be having fun.
Whatever enjoyment there is slowly dissipates as soon as we’re exposed to the physical torment Dominika goes through. It’s obvious that the production is trying to touch upon themes of sexuality and the objectification of women. Dominika goes from a dancer everyone admires to a person who uses her physical beauty to accomplish her mission. But there’s a difference between the film making a statement and becoming the very thing it wants to ridicule. We have a lot of scenes of Lawrence showing skin, getting sexually assaulted, beaten, and tortured. There’s a near sadistic quality in how she continually gets abused. Lawrence appears game for it, committing to the character even though much her time is spent putting on make up to hide her bruises. We learn less about Dominika’s relationship with her mother and more about how far she’s willing to put her body through the gauntlet.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a movie being sleazy or trashy. Part of the appeal of something like Basic Instinct (1992) or Femme Fatale (2002) is that – despite being absolutely ridiculous – they embrace what they are with complete conviction. A filmmaker like Brian De Palma could have taken this and really run with it. The trouble with Red Sparrow is that it doesn’t realize it’s a down and dirty sex thriller. The elements are all there, including body horror. A particular “skin shaving” scene left me squirming in my seat. But with every sensational moment, there are twice as many where the plot downshifts into serious mode, weaving through a maze of deceit none of us really care about. We have to go through a two and a half hour chore, following Dominika as she goes back and forth between her Russian leadership and those with the Americans – led by Joel Edgerton’s CIA agent – in a “which side will she choose” mystery. That is arguably the worst thing about Red Sparrow: it doesn’t give Dominika the confidence to choose a side. Even when all the cards are revealed, the status quo is maintained.
***WARNING: Mild spoilers***
One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to thrillers is the trope where, despite all the hardships and difficulties a character goes through, it all turns out to be part of the “master plan” conceived from the beginning. It undermines everything the character goes through up to that point. Whatever suspense there was is now dissipated because it apparently was always supposed to work out that way. It’s a cheap way to resolve a story, tying up all the loose ends in a nice and neat bow. Chaos is what makes thrillers great, not cleanliness.
***End of spoiler section***
Red Sparrow tries to make itself more interesting in how it handles its sexual themes, but all that hides what is a pretty mundane spy story. There’s a better version of this somewhere, hopefully we’ll get to see it someday.