20th Century Fox
Jennifer Lawrence has made a career out of playing young women who find themselves forced to play someone else’s game, and what defines those characters has been the way they push back against whatever system it is that seems determined to screw them. By that measure, RED SPARROW is a perfectly-tailored Jennifer Lawrence movie. While not exactly the product that the film’s marketing promised, it is stuffed with good ideas and strong performances, and in many ways, it’s the most complete thing yet from director Francis Lawrence.
Many people have commented that the trailers for the film made it look like Fox just made a Black Widow movie without owning Black Widow. That is not true of the film as a whole, and one of the things that should be stressed to audiences is that Red Sparrow is not an action film. It is a deliberate, slow-burning spy film about a young woman who finds herself drawn into a world against her will, forcing her to learn how to either master the spy game, or end up dead. It is perhaps too ornately plotted for its own good at times, but I respect the unsparing way the film approaches some of its more unsavory elements.
One of the strangest things about the film is the setting. If you’d asked me during the film’s first half-hour, I would have told you it’s a period piece set during the Cold War. Nope. It is apparently set right now, and while it’s easy to view Russia as “the bad guys” again right now, the film feels like it’s set in a world where we have modern technology but the politics of the mid-‘80s, feeling more like a world based loosely on real Russians. It helps in terms of storytelling because it gives them a very simply defined moral landscape on which to play out a story about power and the ways it can be used as a weapon.
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi, enjoying all of the privilege that position offers, including constant medical care for her mother (Joely Richardson). When her leg is broken in a savage accident, Dominika’s prospects suddenly look fairly bleak, and she finds herself unsure about how she’s going to make a living. Her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her a new life, and after testing her temperament and finding she has a capacity for merciless violence, he presses her into service for his branch of the government. Her first assignment is a brutal mess, and she witnesses something she shouldn’t, which only pushes her even further into this dangerous new life.
20th Century Fox
There’s an early chunk of the film that’s set at Sparrow School, a secret Soviet spy factory dedicated to turning out women who can seduce anyone and who are able to manipulate targets. Charlotte Rampling plays the head of the school, and it’s clear this is one of the reasons that Lawrence & Lawrence were excited to make the film. One of the things that makes a movie star a movie star is the way their personas become part of the work itself. When we first watched Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence was a young actor who suddenly sprang to vivid life in this great, smartly-written role. Now, a mere eight years later, she’s accumulated enough cultural baggage that we can’t watch a film of hers without some degree of “Jennifer Lawrence” bleeding through.
This seems most pronounced in a scene that feels like a direct challenge to anyone who helped distribute the stolen nudes of Lawrence a few years ago. There is a sexual frankness to some of this film that is unlike anything she’s done before, including a stark approach to nudity, and in this one scene, it feels like she steals back much of what was taken from her in real life. Considering how much of the film is about the power built into any sexual exchange, it’s interesting to see how Francis Lawrence avoids the easy “male gaze” traps of the genre. There is certainly much made of Dominika’s considerable sexual charisma, but the film doesn’t feel like it’s objectifying her. That is not an easy thing to accomplish, and it’s clear that the director and star share a certain trust that allowed her to play some of the more difficult and demanding things she does here.
It’s a man’s world that Dominika has to navigate, and there’s a murderer’s row of supporting actors for Lawrence to contend with here, including Schoenaerts, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, and Joel Edgerton as an American spy named Nate Nash who’s at the center of her primary mission after graduating from Sparrow School. He’s been running a Russian mole, and they want to know the mole’s identity. She is supposed to get close to Nate, and much of the tension of the film hinges on the reality of their relationship. What’s true? What’s part of the game? This is probably the least interesting stuff in the film for me, and for a film that is meant to be built around a cat-and-mouse dynamic, it feels fairly straightforward. The studio has been careful to urge critics not to get too detailed about spoilers, which is fair, but maybe I read too much spy fiction. The things that work best about the film really aren’t about plot. Lawrence does a great job of playing a simmering rage that is stoked by every single man (or woman, honestly) who tries to deny her basic agency, and if that’s not a perfectly understandable protagonist for a film in 2018, what is? This is a woman who is told that her only value hinges on what’s between her legs and what she can get with it, and she is repeatedly assaulted in invasive, ugly ways. She is forced to adapt her ideas of what’s normal in order to survive. She frequently finds herself making the least terrible choice, since there are no “good” choices for her to make at all.
Edgerton is fine, but it’s not much of a role. Frankly, everything on the American side is written thin. Considering the film’s over-two-hour running time and its deliberate pace, it seems like they should have done a better job of justifying why we spend as much time with them as we do. It’s shoe leather more than characterization. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as rewarding as it should be. What makes it all go down easy is the enormous technical command on display. Red Sparrow is a beautifully-made film, with rich, sleek photography by Jo Willems, razor-sharp work by editor Alan Edward Bell, and a terrific sense of place thanks to the production design by Maria Djurkovic. Even when the film is thin, it feels like it’s firing on all cylinders because of how seriously Lawrence takes it as a director. This isn’t “just” a spy film to him, and he clearly feels a real drive to do well by his star.
Overall, Red Sparrow is too slight to stick. It’s better than last year’s Atomic Blonde, but that’s because this film actually seems interested in the impact of sex-as-currency on the person spending it. It’s just a shame the film winds up more focused on mechanics than the admittedly harrowing and interesting journey of this battered-but-never-broken warrior.
Running time: 139 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic