File Under 2018 #18: Red Sparrow


The spy movie genre is so established at this point that we rarely see one that feels new. Though they exist, we don't see many spy movies that really take their events seriously -- historically they fall in the slightly silly Bond genre, over-the-top action of Mission: Impossible, or the newer ultra-violent, video game-esque John Wick style. These films tend to be outright comic or melodramatic, rarely taking the stakes or consequences seriously. There are exceptions, of course, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and arguably the Jason Bourne films -- the high concept of those films take it out of reality even with the more realistic aesthetics.

Red Sparrow is almost hyper real, with a big emotional punch set against its use of violence, both physical and sexual. Unlike most spy movies, this isn't an action movie. It steadily moves, even has some structural archetypes of your typical action film [a training sequence, for example] but there are no big action setpiece scenes.

Instead, this is a full board character study of how a spy is built. In this particular story, this is all about sexuality. This makes for an intriguing R-rated blockbuster premise and you might react to the marketing of the film looking for a sexy spy romp. Red Sparrow, in fact, is the horrific nightmare version of a female sex empowerment film.

It is tough to call it the highlight but the long training sequence that comes in the film's first act is the standout scene. We learn that the Sparrow program trains its prospective spies [both male and female] not through marksmanship but weaponized sexuality. The training process is basically sexual torture, grooming the recruits to be psychologically empty and able to seduce anyone without reservation or self-awareness. They are all broken down, humiliated and it is difficult to watch. The film that came to my mind during this sequence wasn't another spy film or a military training film but the notorious Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

In a different context, this film would be about the female agent using her sexuality as a weapon in a positive sense, kicking ass and saving the world as a counter-balance to the James Bond template. This character is scarred and resentful of those who put her through this program. No matter how much of a badass she ultimately becomes, she's been completely stripped of her self and her body. The difference is that she doesn't have control of her body, it fully belongs to the state and even those it is used against.

Red Sparrow isn't fun.

What it's about: Dominika Egorova [Jennifer Lawrence] is a Russian ballerina who suffers a devastating injury that ends her career. With no one else to turn to, she is recruited by her connected uncle [Matthias Schoenaerts] to join an elite spy program called "The Sparrows." After completing the grueling training, she is sent to Budapest to seduce C.I.A. agent Nate Nash [Joel Edgerton] in order to find the Russian mole who is working with him. The work gets complicated when mistakes are made, emotions get in the way, and personal vendettas come to pass.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • This is a big star role for a big Hollywood star, though it is far from Jennifer Lawrence's best performance -- and that hurts the quality of the film. She comes off pretty flat and emotionally impenetrable, which is certainly part of the character but it is hard to have a character study without being able to properly study the character. At this point in her career, she's simply better when she doesn't have to hit one tone throughout an entire movie.

  • As for the accent, it isn't great but you'll get used to it. And it is far from the only whiff of an accent in the movie, which is filled with a cast of Western Europeans playing Ruskie.

  • As for its director, it is at least nice to see Francis Lawrence back to an ambitious genre film -- his Hunger Games films were fine, but that fully ran its course. I think was positioned as Lawrence's big Oscar run film, which obviously isn't going to happen [I can see how that was the plan with the raw elements of the film]. Honestly, this is probably the best film Lawrence has made, though I'll admit I've never been much of a fan of his work.

  • The romantic angle between Dominika and Nash feels like a way to make this more like a regular genre film, which is a bit disappointing. It never really makes sense for the characters and only confused the film's mystery.

  • The film does the thing where it is clearly set in present day but doesn't use any cultural markers and limits modern technology as much as possible. With few changes, this could firmly be set as a Cold War thriller. There is even an important use of floppy disks to transfer information. This is a film trope that usually gets my eyes rolling. In a film that otherwise tends to shoot for realism, the aesthetic just makes it confusing.

  • Red Sparrow probably should be better. I'm not exactly sure why it isn't. The elements are there: it has a unique approach to a well-worn genre, the production is beautiful, it has a big star who is also a reliably good actor, it even has some real-world political intrigue. But it just doesn't come together. Jennifer Lawrence being a small void at the middle is definitely one reason. Being decidedly un-entertaining doesn't help; this is a tough film to recommend and I can't see anyone enjoying it.