In Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence plays ballerina Dominika Egorova, who, after a less-than-accidental accident leaves her leg broken, is brought into the world of the Russian secret service by her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts). She is sent to a special school that trains “Sparrows,” government agents who are trained to seduce their targets and to withstand any amount of force.
And, mostly, it’s uncomfortable. But it’s not uncomfortable in any productive way. We see Lawrence’s Dominika be subjected to brutal physical and sexual assaults ad nauseam, but to what end it is not readily clear. The film attempts to depict a harrowing world of Russian espionage that Dominika is thrown into, and it also attempts to depict her as a strong-willed protagonist that can overcome these brutalities.
And yet, these assaults are frequent enough to seem almost fetishistic. Not to mention that the camera never shies away from the male gaze vis a vis Lawrence’s figure. It is a choice that would feel tacky and exploitative even without acknowledging the current politic climate in Hollywood and beyond. With that outside context added in, Red Sparrow becomes a squirmy misfire of a spy thriller.
Not only is it cringe-inducing in this way—the film intends to give off this mood, but, again, it is not to anyone’s advantage—but Red Sparrow is also painfully dull. With the dead weight of a two-hour and 21 minute runtime on its back, it drudges through scene after scene of torment and rote plotting. Each scene unravels meticulously, but to no larger purpose.
In fact, many scenes that add to this incessant plotting are re-explained later in the film. There is one scene midway through the film where Dominika and Joel Edgerton’s CIA operative Nate Nash discuss how they have gotten to this point in the film. It is a redundant scene that plays out, like all of the scenes in the film, slowly and pointedly, as if we are learning new and pivotal information.
One could assume that these scenes are included to keep the audience abreast of the “complex” plot so that they are prepared for the twists and turns in the film’s climax. In actuality, though, there is nothing complicated about the plot itself, nor the film’s characters for that matter.
The plot bends and twists in ways where everyone watching is certain of what is going to happen at the end. Perhaps they are not certain of the particulars, but everyone understands the notion of double-crossing and deceptive spies and twist reveals. The film merely presents these things as if they have never been done before.
What Red Sparrow has going for it are its sleek production design and a competent DP in Jo Willems. James Newton Howard being in charge of the score doesn’t hurt any, either, although it is hard to commit this film’s soundtrack to memory.
What is expected to be the saving grace of this film is its acting performances. But the actors here feel like children playing dress up. Not in the sense that they act with the talent of children, but that they assume roles that are unnatural for them to take on. Lawrence plays a Russian with the blunt accent that a comedy scene would require to get a cheap laugh. And even Edgerton, who has pulled off an American accent in the past, can’t seem to lock one down here.
The supporting cast, in contrast, is comprised of actors performing serviceable, albeit paycheck-inspired, roles. It is easy to forget that Jeremy Irons is in the film, given his lackluster turn, which hurts the film in ways that can’t rightfully be explained without divulging in spoilers. And Mary Louise Parker, whose performance is perhaps the only bit of levity the film allows for, feels like she walked on set from a different production and never bothered to change her character.
Red Sparrow dresses itself up as a sleek espionage thriller with gritty undertones, and never does anything worthwhile with that framework. It presents uncomfortable situations with the expectation of eliciting shock and awe, but all that really comes of it is a bad taste in the mouth. It has its rare moments of action—of actual forward momentum, that is—but these are hidden around tedious scenes of Brand X thriller plotting.
Red Sparrow: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)