This article contains major Red Sparrow spoilers.
Early on in Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, Dominika Egorova sits down with her uncle to discuss what ultimately becomes the driving force of their relationship and the film. Dominika, as played with steely foreboding by Jennifer Lawrence, is in her default emotion of stoic brooding. Some months before this moment, Dominika had suffered a seemingly freak accident while at the height of her career as the prima ballerina in the privileged Bolshoi. Suddenly it is all gone, and she is left without prestige, position, or an income to help her ailing mother. It is probably why she lets her guard down and allows Uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts) into her home, and sets into motion a dynamic that will come to define (and explain) the whole film in which they feature—including the ending.
Vanya, as per Dominika’s mother (Joely Richardson), has always leered at his niece, even when she was but a girl. And when he comes bearing supposedly happy tidings, he is in essence making his first overture of “courtship” to Dominika in the most repulsive of ways. He laments her tragic fate after an accident on the stage… before stating there are no accidents and there is no fate. Not in his line of work, and not in Dominika’s life. If she wants cosmic justice, she will have to take it herself, especially when he reveals evidence he’s acquired proving that Dominika’s injuries were the result of her ballerino co-star, a man who caused her accident so that his lover could assume the prima position.
If one wants to be charitable, Vanya would seem to be putting his brother’s daughter on the road to vengeance, but from that moment he already has designs on her for Sparrow School. One act of justifiable rage and violence will lead her to come to him for help, which in turn leads to another “misfortune” in which her role as a seducer of a Russian oligarch will become an ultimatum: death or Sparrow School. His school; his world; his clutches; and his influence. There are no accidents, he will make Dominika his, and when one understands this, the cloak-and-dagger affair between Lawrence’s aloof heroine and Joel Edgerton’s surprisingly easy CIA target makes so much more sense in the third act.
Much of Red Sparrow operates as a cat and mouse thriller in which audiences are forced to repeatedly second guess Dominika’s motivations. Is she loyal to her nation or does she really want to defect to the United States as Nash urges? Does she love him or is he a tool to get out of Russia… or even a tool to find the mole her uncle and country is hunting, and who can then be disposed of at the edge of a skinner’s scraping blade?
It is all played close to the chest until, in retrospect, it becomes clear it was about making her own fate and luck—and getting vengeance on her father’s brother who would send her to an institution that uses coercion and threats of state sanctioned murder to facilitate “sex,” both supposedly consensual and that which is clearly not. This is not about patriotism, politics, or love for Dominika, it is a longer game of revenge that starts the moment she “graduates.”
In that scene, her uncle takes her to a restaurant he at least assumed she loved as a girl. One wonders if her father noticed his attentions back then? In the sequence, he commands his niece to track down Nash and “sacrifice whatever needs to be sacrificed” in order to find the name of Nash’s informant inside the SVR. Dominika dryly asks, “What reward will they give you? A promotion?” Like the scene where he first came to her after her injury, this exchange where she now comes to him is the moment the story shifts: Dominika is going to pay him back for sending her to Sparrow School by turning this hunt on its head.
Which brings us to the end of the film where, in a sequence reminiscent to actual real-life cloak and dagger skullduggery that informed Steven Spielberg’s true story biopic, Bridge of Spies, Dominika is released from U.S. “custody” and traded for a man whom Nash and the CIA believe is their mole. The film has already established that Nash’s asset is General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons), the stern Russian intelligence officer who pleads with Dominika to give his name to both their superiors.
For Korchnoi, it is an act of continuing to move the needle forward against a Russian government that in spite of being removed from its Soviet past still continues the trend he’s seen all his life: being born in a prison. And as fictional as Red Sparrow is, it isn’t hard to understand his perspective when the unnamed Russian president is in reality a former KGB officer who is notoriously averse to dissent. So Korchnoi wants to poison the well from the inside, but as the SVR is aware that they have a traitor in their midst, he figures his days are numbered no matter what—but Dominika can continue the good fight as the unassailable Cold War hero who brought him in.
And yet, Dominika finds a third way that allows the good general to remain situated near the top of power while she herself gains her own perch. This is not out of a sense of pity or cleverness to save the fellow ballet-loving Korchnoi. This is a plan she first implemented when she asked about Uncle Vanya’s promotion.
Looking back through the film, it becomes obvious this was always Dominika’s play. When she brought him his coat, she obviously rummaged through his credentials. The intention wasn’t just to find leverage, but a way to frame him from the word go. It is also why she flirted her way into putting hundreds of thousands of dollars in a Swiss bank account. Instead of it looking like money lost in a botched operation to bribe an American traitor (played by a marvelous Mary-Louise Parker), it now appears like an American bribe for Vanya’s services.
This plan predates Dominika successfully placing herself in Nate’s bed, and is why she refuses to let him save her at the airport when security forces are clearly taking her off to be “questioned” following the CIA’s failure to extract Parker’s traitor. It’s not that Dominika wants to return home due to a love of Russia; she is willing to try to talk herself out of hot water to get Vanya.
For that shrewd determination, Dominika is tortured within an inch of her life by the SVR. But she does not break and, ironically, it is her guilt-ridden uncle who saves her life. Yet she is only in that position, as opposed to living under an assumed name somewhere in the West, because she came back to kill him. And so she does. Once back in Russia, she is able to finish laying the breadcrumbs, including Nash’s fingerprints and DNA in her beloved uncle’s home, which she averts his suspicion from by giving him what he always wanted: a very loving niece.
And that love takes him all the way up to a sniper’s execution shot. Defecting to the West was never an option for Dominika. Like the ballet dancers she literally broke in the film’s first shocking act of violence, she suffered and persevered so as to have another revenge on the man who wronged her and made her a Sparrow.
For this, she becomes a national hero, as well as presumably a now very well-placed CIA informant insulated deep within the Kremlin. I imagine if we get the Red Sparrow sequel, she will happily partner with Korchnoi in continuing to feed Nash information in their own way. After all, he is still able to play her Tcherepnin over the phone. No doubt they both have a dance yet to perform.