In the late stages of her training as a Sparrow, an elite breed of Russian spies taught to extract information with their bodies and their sexual wiles, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is almost raped in the showers by another cadet. She beats the crap out of him, and both are hauled in front of a disciplinary committee for assault. Her assault. On him.
As punishment (or more training, depending on your perspective), Dominika is made to give her aggressor what he wants — in front of their entire class. To sacrifice her body and her pride for the ultimate good: the State.
She does as she's told. She sheds her garments, one by one, but refuses to break eye contact. When he tells her to turn around, she refuses. "Look at me," she coolly orders. Naked, she sits on a nearby desk and spreads her legs, staring down at both him and their peers. Faced with willing prey, he remains flaccid. "Bitch," he spits out, zipping his fly.
He didn't want her body. He wanted power — and that's the one thing this woman is unwilling to surrender.
That's the message Red Sparrow wants us to take away from its nearly two and a half hour run time, and eventually, it succeeds. But the road to enlightenment isn't without its bumps.
Directed by Frances Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Mockingjay Part 1, Mockingjay, Part 2 ), Red Sparrow centers around Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) a former prima ballerina turned Soviet spy after an accident leaves her unable to pursue her passion. Tasked with taking care of her disabled mother after the death of her father, she turns to her uncle Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts) for help. As the deputy director of the Russian security services (SVR), he offers her a job: sleep with a powerful man in order to get information from him. Unfortunately, the mission takes an unexpected turn when said businessman is garrotted, with Dominika as a witness — she's now less of an asset and more of a loose end. As a compromise, Ivan gives her a choice: become a Sparrow, or face execution.
Her first assignment is to uncover a suspected mole inside the SVR. To do so, she must seduce an American CIA operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), the asset's handler and sole point of contact.
Lawrence's performance is, as always, compelling to watch, though marred by an absurd Russian accent. (It's also a pretty bold decision to cast a woman famous for her awkward falls on the red carpet as a graceful ballerina.) Since the film is based on the first novel in a trilogy by Jason Matthews, himself a former CIA employee, I have to assume the spy facts are correct. But the idea of someone who has been through roughly three months of spy school being able to withstand extreme and sustained methods of torture seems, at best, implausible. (Although, I would happily watch an entire movie about Charlotte Rampling teaching seduction in the creepiest way possible.)
What's more, the characters' motivations are murky. Nash is your average spy action hero: he drinks a little too much, works out his stress by swimming, and has a thing for nubile blond women. Except — shocker — he cares about his assets. So much so that, for much of the movie, we're asked to seriously ponder whether or not Dominika could really be willing to defect on his word alone, thus becoming a double agent. I get it — spy movies have always relied on a foundation of romance. But this one doesn't quite sell the chemistry between Lawrence and Edgerton. After a couple of flirty back and forths and one night together, we're meant to believe that this is true love? James Bond has had longer dalliances with disposable not-quite-Bond-girls.
All this makes the love story completely superfluous. In fact, the movie would work better without it. Red Sparrow, at its core, is about a woman's emancipation from the various men who control her: her ballet partner, her uncle, her lover, and the patriarchal state. Why cheapen that with a tepid romantic interest?
In many ways, this film mirrors Lawrence's own attempt at emancipation. This role, combined with her turn in Darren Aronofsky's mother! in 2017, suggests that she's trying to pivot from the image we have of her as a public persona (speaks her mind; eats fries; farts) with unexpected and vulnerable characters.
What we're witnessing is Lawrence drawing a line between JLaw, the red carpet goof, and Jennifer Lawrence, the thespian. An actress famous for her reluctance to shoot nude scenes. doesn't just suddenly decide to go full-frontal, which makes this decision worth examining. Lawrence has been vocal about seeing the full-frontal nudity in this movie as a way to reclaim ownership over her body after a 2014 iCloud hack spilled her most intimate photos all over the internet. It makes sense then, that she would take that leap with a director she trusts (Lawrence directed her in three of the four Hunger Games films).
Still, it's not the nudity that makes Red Sparrow shocking; it's the sheer amount of sexual violence, often almost impossible to sit through. Dominika faces violent rape attempts not once, but twice, not counting the almost unquantifiable instances of sexual harassment. A great deal of the sometimes overwhelming violence, is perpetrated on, or by, naked bodies — our most vulnerable state — resulting in audible cringing from the audience. (At one point, someone is tortured by way of a peeler used for skin grafts.)
In some ways, having an audience witness over two hours of physical and sexual assault on a woman almost defeats the film's true message. It's exhausting, and the trope of women using their bodies to get what they need from men is starting to get a little tiresome. But there is something to be said about the powerful statement made by seeing a woman physically beaten over and over again. It's a similar shock to the one experienced in Atomic Blonde, one of the most violent movies in recent memory, and the first to really take the injuries usually inflicted on run of the mill male action heroes and apply them to a female protagonist.
In the case of Red Sparrow, the repeated injuries sustained by Dominika almost feel like a physical manifestation of the emotional and sexual trauma that she and (although perhaps to a lesser degree) many women have faced throughout their lives. In the context of the #MeToo movement, that takes on a special resonance.
Throughout the film, Dominika is asked to sacrifice for a higher purpose: for her family, for her art, and for her country. Watching her come into her own is not always pleasant, but maybe that's the point. Maybe seeing a woman finally take control of her destiny is worth the sacrifice of our own viewing comfort.
Red Sparrow hits cinemas March 1.
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