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.
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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