Red Sparrow film review: Jennifer Lawrence leads a stylistically shallow and ideologically putrid spy movie

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Following her wall-rattling performance in Darren Aronofsky’s putrid biblical allegory mother!, Jennifer Lawrence again summons seismic, screen-buckling presence in the espionage thriller Red Sparrow. And again the might of her acting – which has an almost otherworldly oomph to it, like a fallen angel or a demigoddess – is smothered by a directorial vision obsessed with nasty embellishments and misanthropic storytelling.

It would be outrageous to interpret this as a female empowerment film.

Filmmaker Francis Lawrence, who directed the actor in three out of four of the Hunger Games movies, sets out to both exonerate and embellish a Russian stereotype: the ice-cold villainess who eats men for breakfast. At least until this intensely unlikeable and over-long film in which  a handsome American (Joel Edgerton) arrives to shine a light on the dark parts of the protagonist’s soul, and to suggest a better life – which naturally involves waking up next to him.

Writer Justin Haythe (adapting a novel by Jason Matthews) can’t decide whether to give his protagonist agency or to take it away. Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a ruthless killer, bashing and clubbing and killing. She is also a victim of the system, forced into a secret Russian ‘Sparrow School’ after her career as a ballerina ended and a one-time assignment went terribly awry. Her mother, in need of medical care, is occasionally wheeled out to halfheartedly imply the protagonist is more than a cold-hearted operative.

An incestuous uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) puts Dominika inside a government-run institution devoted to creating a new generation of super-sexy killer spies and applying the proverbial defibrillator to Cold War clichés. The despicable woman in charge (Charlotte Rampling) implores her students to “forget the sentimental morality on which you were raised,” which could also be interpreted as a mission statement from the director.

We have little empathy for Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence), such are her brutal murdering ways and eat-puppies-for-breakfast demeanour.

There is no montage in these training sequences; no speed or economy. Early in the piece, a meaningless exercise in parallel cutting alternates between Dominika performing in a lush red tutu on stage, and beanie-clad, shady looking CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) doing cloak and dagger stuff in a park. Both moments rely on the other for impact.

The characters meet in person much later on, almost an hour into the running time. By this point we have no respect and little empathy for Dominika, such are her brutal murdering ways and eat-puppies-for-breakfast demeanour. Nor do we have an understanding of Nash, who disappears for lengthy intervals and returns for brief across-the-desk type scenes with colleagues that reveal little about his character.

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Guess which Russian spy is assigned the task of seducing the CIA agent? Luring Nash is as simple as putting Dominika in a revealing swimsuit and sending her to his local pool.

When the two begin to discuss their predicaments, maybe there is a bluff going on, or a double bluff, or a bluff of a double bluff. Boy, have we seen this movie before – usually with a modicum of chemistry between the two leads. The recent, frothy WWII spy pic Allied at least contained saucy to-and-fro between Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, playing spies who get it on during a sandstorm in the Sahara.

No lives matter in this film.

A thick fog of misery and misanthropy pervades everything in Red Sparrow. The director lurches from titillation to grotesquery, dangling Jennifer Lawrence’s beauty as a carrot and moments of ice pick discomfort as the stick. It would be outrageous to interpret this as a female empowerment film. The protagonist is forced into various sex acts, tortured in scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in an Eli Roth movie, and brutally assaulted many times. On one occasion her face is pushed into the corpse of a murdered woman in a bathtub, lying in a pool of her own blood.

When it looks like a semi-interesting character might eventually be emerging from the peripheries of Haythe’s derivative screenplay, she is quickly run over by a truck. No lives matter in this film. Nor does its cruelty connect to meaningful or even quasi-meaningful stylistic ambition, as it did in the disgusting and feverish Only God Forgives (2013) – which at least countered a hatred of people with a love of visual storytelling. Jo Willems’ antiseptic cinematography in Red Sparrow feels like it originated in a laboratory.

One has to wonder what audience this film is intended for, and who might appreciate its clinical atmosphere and pointless provocations. Red Sparrow doesn’t have the angry energy of a revenge movie (like Kill Bill) or the appeal of a fight-the-patriarchy feminist picture (like Mad Max: Fury Road). It tells us the world is a terrible, terrible place, and the only way to navigate it is to also act terribly. What a defeatist message, captured with a fetishistic lens that ogles at Jennifer Lawrence in her underwear, then stops to flagellate her.

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14 responses to “Red Sparrow film review: Jennifer Lawrence leads a stylistically shallow and ideologically putrid spy movie

  1. Can it be only eight years since Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s astonishing almost-debut? Now THAT was a movie! Has she done anything since that’s been half as good?

  2. The preview of this film was enough for me to know thos was not a film for me. As much as I like Je nifer Lawrence as an actress I get very sick of violent, nasty movies so think Luke is pretty much on the money with this one!

    1. very accurate review…. the movie was terrible…. among other things, spent the whole time watching Dominika walk from place to place, door to door, car to car.

  3. Why does every movie have to be about female empowerment or some narrative for the shallow Hollywood ideologies? Newsflash; the world doesn’t care what Hollywood thinks … it may come as a surprise to them, but Hollywood is not our go to standard for morals, sex or gender standards.
    What happened to good old entertainment and an edge of your seat thriller which is exactly what the genre is all about.
    There wasn’t supposed to be an overt ‘attraction’ between the two spies because that would have removed the tension for the movie goer on whether they trusted each other and we are kept in suspense not knowing this until the end. Hence the minimization of ‘chemistry. I thought it was quite appropriate for the context.
    I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I thought Jennifer Lawrence and Joel did an excellent job and it delivered on everything a good thriller should do. I was on the edge of my seat. I wanted to jump into the movie myself to help Jennifer’s character so the director certainly gets top marks for engaging me.
    Highly recommend the movie … don’t go and view it through the narrow and shallow lens of feminism and how Hollywood wants us think. Just enjoy the movie for what it is … a thriller and a good one at that.

  4. When I saw the previews of this movie I was immediately reminded of Bridget Fonda/Gabriel Byrne in The Assassin (Point of No Return) from 1993–hasn’t this been done before (to some extent)? I don’t quite get the fuss about Jennifer Lawrence; other than cheekbones and smoky eyes, exactly what does she bring to her roles?

    1. The Assassin …. which was the Hollywood remake of Nikita.

      I caught an interview of JL on PBS-Newshour yesterday (SBS) and my opinion hasn’t changed. She’s not stupid and is reasonably articulate, but then neither is she anything special. There is a meme that somehow she is transgressive (eg. going public about the big gender salary difference she discovered when shooting American Hustle –the third movie co-starring her and Bradley Cooper; and btw, another movie starring JL that I couldn’t get to the end of). She isn’t my ideal of modern beauty–which may be the point; ie. she is some kind of identikit “average” of everyone’s notion of beauty; no flaws but that ends up with a kind of hyperblandness that is then made worse by her constantly glazed look that is either natural or that her (male) directors cast her for and insist she adopt for each movie … (the case for the prosecutiion: Red Sparrow).

      I also read somewhere that JL is the equivalent of the music industry’s Taylor Swift. Now that rings true. There has to be some talent there, but it seems to me nothing more than William Gibson’s predictions about the (then) future celebrities of the age of the matrix: transglobal, indeed extraterrestial, hyper-celebrity but insubstantial and pixel deep.

  5. “seismic, screen-buckling presence in the espionage thriller Red Sparrow. And again the might of her acting – which has an almost otherworldly oomph to it, like a fallen angel or a demigoddess”

    Seriously? I looked for irony but failed (though also dropped out of reading further …).
    Jennifer Lawrence is what the studios have created as a transitional “actor” between old-school living beings and fully digital avatars. I would guess her role in Red Sparrow is close to the nadir of this, though I thought that about Hunger Games (in as much as I can watch more than about 30 minutes of these thing). In fact I would like a digital image expert to carefully examine these movies and tell us they are really images of a live human … No accident that she has been paired in several movies with the male equivalent du jour, Bradley Cooper.

    Oh well, they say if you can’t say anything good about someone, then say nothing. So I’ll stop. If only I didn’t have to read such things …

  6. Cripes Luke, you did stay to the end, didn’t you? Or was it all to much?

    Spoiler alert: Dominika ends up on top, in charge of everything – the whole damn show. If that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is. And yes, I do know Jennifer Lawrence enrages some on the left because she’s refuses to be locked into a metoo-ing ideological box, but what was her character supposed to do? File a complaint of sexual harassment the secret police and then feebly demand to stay annonymous? Write an angry weepy piece about nasty brutish Russian men not reading her “non verbal signs”?

    One of the lines I liked was spoken by the “despicable” character played by Charlotte Rambling (yes the “The Night Porter” herself, and no coincidence). She claims Russia will rise again because the West has been made weak by its obsession with social media and shopping.

    This review, which completely misses the point of the movie, proves she’s right.

    1. Of the eight people at this afternoon’s showing in La Rouge (1940 art deco cinema) in North Adelaide/Prospect – I laughed out loud at the Charlotte Rampling comment you highlight here Russell! True! True! I did tune out on the usual spy and bluff double bluff stuff – looking for sites I may have scene in Moscow or Wien or London – going back over 40 years or more recently – mind-wandering off-topic stuff…of course – and the actual settings probably largely studio etc generated – but there you are – a run-away time – who’s screwing whom – what-have-I-missed moments – enjoyment.

    2. Categorically YES!!! Russell, I love your review of The Review and your take on the film. My sentiments exactly.

    3. Well said Russel and my thoughts exactly.
      I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I was entertained, thrilled, engaged and on the edge of my seat.
      Welcome to the world of espionage and the brutal consequences of being a player. Nobody gives a Damon if you are a feminist. There are no free passes, entitlements or wage gap claims because you were accidentally born female in the world of espionage.
      I though Jennifer’s character did well to negotiate her fee from £30,000 to £250,000. No patriarchy or hierarchy involved, but rather an assertion of what she thought she was worth. Isn’t that empowering?
      It’s certainly refreshing and a pleasant change from the entitlement mentality of feminists who are unable to achieve in life based on merit.
      Well done Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton… good job.

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