Home » At the Multiplex » Red Sparrow
         

Red Sparrow

Ever since her breakout hit with Winter’s Bone — to say nothing of her breakout franchise with “The Hunger Games” — Jennifer Lawrence has done a noteworthy job of building her career around strong and empowering female roles. And then, a couple of years ago, she made Passengers. To be fair, the movie looked on paper like it might have been a nuanced and intellectual love story with a smart and proactive female lead, until the filmmakers got into the finer details and fucked it all up so badly that the end result achieved the opposite effect. And that’s not me saying that, that’s Jennifer Lawrence saying that.

Evidently, Lawrence didn’t learn from her past mistakes, because something similar clearly happened with Red Sparrow.

This time, Lawrence plays a ballerina in Moscow whose meteoric career is cut short by an accident act of career sabotage. She’s back up and walking a few months later, but she’s got an ailing mother (Nina, played by Joely Richardson) and a mountain of medical bills, with no backup career. Luckily, Dominika just happens to have an uncle (Vanya, played by Matthias Schoenaerts) who’s a deputy director in some clandestine government organization.

To make a long and bloody tale short (Yes, this movie gets good and bloody before it even gets started.), Dominika is accepted into a training program for spies who specialize in manipulation and seduction. And when I say “accepted”, I mean that she’s given the choice of providing for her mother by acting as an international prostitute/assassin or taking a bullet to the brainpan.

…Actually, no. It’s really more about succeeding her assigned mission or getting killed. This whole character development stuff with regard to Dominika’s mother is so thin, it might as well not be there. Such a wasted opportunity to give our main character some depth.

The good news is that this is more or less only the first half of the movie. This is, after all, a spy thriller. The plot is very convoluted, with various agendas and secrets dancing around each other in deceit, backstabbing, manipulation, and other skullduggery. And to its credit, this aspect of the movie is perfectly fine. The political intrigue is compelling, the plans within plans are nicely clever, and the big climactic twist is beautifully executed. The whole plot is twisted and complex, but the filmmakers do a fine job of keeping it all engaging and easy to follow. That’s a very tall order and I’ve seen other spy thrillers do it far worse.

Also — aside from a couple of fleeting yet wonky shots — I can’t knock the visuals. Nearly every frame uses the color red somehow, often in lush and beautiful ways. Also, I commend the filmmakers for going all-in on the violence. From the opening leg break to the climactic torture scene, no effort is made to spare us the blood and gore, and it’s very effective. The filmmakers aren’t shy about nudity, either — it’s not often you see a movie in which male and female exposure are more or less equal, but here we are.

As for everything else… whoo boy.

Let’s start with the cast. Jennifer Lawrence’s role was physically demanding to a huge degree, and her commitment here is admirable. Unfortunately, the task of keeping a consistent and convincing Russian accent was beyond her. What’s worse, the stoic and impenetrable nature of this character means that Lawrence is stuck with the same emotion through at least two-thirds of the runtime. Oh, and of course the filmmakers need to keep the profitable A-list face recognizable at all times, which undercuts the whole “international woman of mystery” premise.

Elsewhere, we’ve got Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, and Charlotte Rampling all sleepwalking through another paycheck. Mary Louise-Parker brings a welcome bit of comic relief, but she only gets one scene in the third act. Matthias Schoenaerts does surprisingly well for himself — after seeing him as so many paper-bland romantic leads, it was good to see him finally make an impression as a manipulative scumbag. As for Joel Edgerton, here playing the actual male lead, he does a perfectly fine job and his chemistry with Lawrence is quite serviceable. But I’m getting really, REALLY tired of seeing Lawrence play romance arcs with men over a decade her senior.

Speaking of which, it bears noticing that the director, the screenwriter, the writer of the book this movie was based on, and seven of the nine credited producers are all male. And with this movie, that’s a huge problem.

Throughout pretty much the entire first half of the movie, we see Dominika’s superiors treating her clinically, as if she is literally just a collection of parts assembled into a weapon to be used and disposed of as she sees fit. At the same time, Dominika (and her fellow trainees, to a lesser extent) are tasked with suppressing all of their instincts to seduce a target and present a 100 percent credible show of sexual arousal. And the filmmakers want to show this as a barbaric act of abuse.

The filmmakers are trying to keep all these different plates spinning, and their plainly visible male gaze brings it all crashing down. The “arousal” element is handled all wrong, such that there’s this intangible element of “Isn’t this sexy?” in the presentation of these young people being forced to strip naked and perform sexual acts in front of their peers. It’s sleazy in all the wrong ways, such that this movie about the objectification of women ends up objectifying its actresses. The filmmakers were trying to construct this visceral and thought-provoking picture condemning the use of women as mere sex objects, and they ended up making unpleasant trash. That’s a pretty huge and embarrassing failure.

(Side note: For comparison’s sake, can you imagine this same movie if it was directed by, say… Lexi Alexander? That would’ve been fucking awesome.)

But as I said before, the filmmakers were going for a highly complex and delicate balance. This premise was insanely complicated and multifaceted enough even without the spy thriller plot, which is highly convoluted by nature. With all of this packed into a 140-minute running time, it seems inevitable that something was going to end up undercooked. And that’s not going to fly when it comes to the subject of sexual abuse. When you drop that bomb, you drop that bomb. The filmmakers should’ve known better than to half-ass such incredibly sensitive subject matter, and the result is inevitably worse than if they hadn’t done anything.

Red Sparrow is a neat little spy romp in the back half, but getting to that point is just awful. The filmmakers were far too ambitious for their own good, trying to take on a highly sensitive subject matter that they didn’t have the runtime, expertise, or good sense to handle properly. I want to applaud the filmmakers in their attempt to make an empowering feminist action flick, but it’s so misguided and wrong-headed that it goes back around to being unintentionally misogynist.

It’s a damn shame that so much talent went into such a promising concept, and it all emptied out into so much wasted potential. Not recommended.

Leave a Reply