There once was a time when spies on film meant more than tuxedoes or spandex, and the “action” (as it was) radiated from paranoia instead of pyrotechnics. Despite its vague similarities to other recent chic skullduggery on the screen, Red Sparrow ambitiously pushes for a return to that kind of patient simmer—at least until it adds the occasionally bold ingredient of blunt force gore and sex.
Indeed, death and desire are longtime staples of the spy movie, but likely pitched both to publishers and studios as the femme fatale’s perspective, Jason Matthews’ novel and the glossy Hollywood version starring Jennifer Lawrence that followed attempt to deconstruct and humanize what CIA vets euphemistically call “honeypots.” In Russia they’re apparently called Sparrows, at least per this film, and there is nothing glamorous about being the woman sharing martinis and murder at the hotel bar. A movie retro in its global politics, but modern in its gender roles, Red Sparrow is nothing else if not audacious for a star vehicle.
Set in the familiar puzzle box of so many spy thrillers, Red Sparrow doesn’t break new ground in its general premise. Once the prima ballerina for Moscow’s famed Bolshoi, Lawrence’s Dominika suffers a crippling accident that leaves her vulnerable to the kind of government wet work her shady uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) wallows in. In spite of promises about merely switching a phone, Dominika’s bedroom tryst with an unpopular Russian czar leaves her as a witness to government sanctioned murder, and on the chopping block lest she becomes a Sparrow for her government. Dominika more wisely surmises that her uncle has sent her to “whore school.”
Taught to use her body to manipulate assets, it is her precocious streak that gets our heroine on the fast track to seduce an American handler from Langley (Joel Edgerton) and unearth beneath his covers who the CIA mole is in the Russian SVR. But as Edgerton attempts to woo the spy over into defecting to the U.S., a nicely layered fog of intentional confusion arises. Constantly, audiences will be asked to speculate where Dominika’s true allegiances lie.
From the get-go, it is apparent this a pivotal project in Lawrence’s career. While she has long stood out playing old souls who were wiser than their years, Red Sparrow’s Dominika is an attempt at something more adult and sensual, especially when compared to the films that she last teamed with director Francis Lawrence to do in the trio of Hunger Games sequels. Now playing the person who chooses who lives or dies, rather than volunteering for it, she has never been in a more empowered, or explicitly sexualized, part. Yet this frankness is one of the film’s better aspects.
As a movie that is about using sexuality to obtain dominance and power, the life of of the glibly named Dominika is anything but sexy. There is a cold cruelty in how the film depicts what a school for government sanctioned femme fatales might be like, with constant threats of murder for insubordination and an emphasis on learning to please those you might despise. This unapologetically sterile atmosphere suggests a faux ambivalence toward the violence and seduction that occurs throughout the film, in usually sudden bright red blasts.
Francis Lawrence aims to shock viewers with the brutality of spycraft, like the sudden rush of sunlight on the morning after. This effect is more provocative than it is artful, but it gets to the core of what Red Sparrow is: a slow-boiled counterbalance to the spy fantasies of atomic blondes and Americanized superheroes. In these moments of excess, both Lawrences find the lurid grace of an enemy’s throat opening wide, which elevates the otherwhise conventional narrative beats.
As a general story, Red Sparrow’s emphasis on spy movie tropes causes its labyrinthine plot to overstay its welcome at nearly two and a half hours. Rarely succinct, the film’s desire to be as minimal as vegetation in a Russian gulag can cause the film to have a deliberate pacing. Evocative of spy thrillers of the 1970s—and sometimes as bleak as them—this approach leads to intermittent bursts of tension, as opposed to a steady rising hiss of dread. Still, there are a number of genuinely eerie set-pieces, including Dominika’s first “assignment,” the manipulation of an American traitor selling government secrets, and what happens when the unnamed Russian president is unimpressed with your progress and sends you to be “interviewed” by security forces.
Serendipitously Red Sparrow suggests in its actual dialogue that it exists in a world where the Cold War never ended; it just splintered into an even more shadowy conflict. After the last few years, we’re inclined to believe a film that gives a nihilistic look at the world today and life behind an apparently still-ironclad curtain. Populating it are a variety of notable actors beyond Jennifer Lawrence, including a superb Charlotte Rampling as the madam of the Sparrow school, Jeremy Irons as a typically overbearing Russian official, and Ciarán Hinds as the president’s right hand man. The talent is so strong, however, it is curious that there’s no uniformed attempts at a Russian accent. Lawrence’s Moscow intonations come and go, while Irons’ British brogue is not hidden at all. Schoenaerts succeeds the most at seeming both Russian and creepy as Dominika’s leering uncle.
Red Sparrow is probably too downbeat and bitter to be quite the mainstream hit it’s marketed as. Even the romance between Dominika and Edgerton’s Nathaniel Nash is icy by design. When your film dives into the dregs of winter, it isn’t exactly looking for anything colorful to blossom. Yet the picture’s aloofness plays to the strengths of Lawrence as a screen presence. Quiet, aggrieved, and usually biding her time, it is in moments like when Dominika plans vengeance against those who stole her ballet career that a violent passion stirs behind her stoic face. Lawrence is an actor who is often most at home when her character is giving the stare of death to her enemies. In Red Sparrow, that just constitutes as foreplay.