Faking It: How Red Sparrow Made Torture Look So Terrifyingly Real

Photo: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Welcome to Faking It, our monthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs, violence, and more.
Type "Best Torture Scenes" into Google, and you'll get roughly 1,900,000 results, a great many of which consist of homemade video montages, and lists ranking of some of the most violent moments in Hollywood history. Reservoir Dogs comes up a lot (the ear!), as do Hostel, Saw, and 1987 British horror cult classic Hellraiser (not for the faint of heart). But repeat that same search a couple of months from now, and you'll probably find a new addition, courtesy of Red Sparrow.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova, a ballerina turned Russian intelligence officer, Red Sparrow goes out of its way not to buy into the James Bond myth of the spy life. No Q, handing out keys to the latest sexy sports car; no sleek bespoke suits; no silk sheets, or lavish casinos in exotic locales; and the only Champagne consumed in this story is done so under duress. Even sex, presented for so long as a perk of the job, is framed as a chore, an ordeal to be overcome in pursuit of the greater goal.
That same gritty mentality applies to the film's multiple torture scenes. This isn't a Casino Royale situation, in which our hero gets his balls whipped with a heavy rope, and then manages to go about his mission. Egorova lives in a world where pain is currency, and everyone pays the price.
Still, one scene in particular stands out. Roughly two-thirds of the way through the film, Egorova's loyalty to her country is tested when her uncle, deputy director of Russian security services, orders a henchman to torture Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), the CIA officer she's been having an affair with. If she resists, they'll assume she's turned double agent for the Americans. If she helps out, she's been playing Nash all along. I won't give away the outcome, but let's just say that this particular scene demands the services of an instrument ordinarily used for skin grafts. It peels layer after layer of derma so smoothly that you barely even bleed.
Needless to say, it's utterly horrifying to watch. While much is left to the imagination, the sound of skin slowly peeling off of a man's body is not one I ever thought I would experience, nor do I wish to ever again. And as a final touch, the assailant lifts each piece of skin as a trophy to parade in front of his victim, a reminder of what he went through, and is sure to experience again.
That moment has been seared in my brain since I saw the film nearly three weeks ago. And so, out of morbid curiosity, I asked director Francis Lawrence (no relation to JLaw) to run me through its inception, and to clarify some lingering questions about what makes a truly memorable torture scene.
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