Red Sparrow is not a pleasant movie by any stretch of the imagination. Rather than offering the escapism the spy genre usually provides of glamorous agents and globetrotting escapades, Francis Lawrence’s film is a brutal plunge into a world of sexual assault and degradation. Although it plays by the beats of the spy drama to the point where it feels like the story is devolving into an extended cat-and-mouse game, Red Sparrow is at its most electrifying when it feels like a raw nerve about how power is used and choice is removed. Jennifer Lawrence gives a fearless performance that makes us want to root for her even if we know that the only way to succeed in the world presented is through dominance, control, and destruction.
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi until an accident on stage breaks her leg and ends her dancing career. Needing to support herself and her ailing mother Nina (Joely Richardson), Dominika turns to her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) who recruits her for a mission involving a Russian politician. When the mission goes sideways, Dominika is presented with a “choice”: die or become a “sparrow”, a subset of the intelligence service meant to use charm and manipulation to extract information. When she completes Sparrow School, Dominika is tasked with seducing CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who knows the identity of a highly placed mole inside the Russian government. But as the mission continues, it’s unclear if Dominika is playing Nate, Vanya, or both.
Lawrence’s film exists firmly inside the spy genre, relishing the little touches of spycraft and deception, but in the deadly serious manner of movies like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy rather than the rambunctious, action-packed glory of Atomic Blonde. He renders the world beautiful and sterile, a fragile creation that’s immaculately framed, but with a symmetry that conveys confinement despite the heavy use of wide-angle lenses. It its pitch-black manner, Red Sparrow tells us that Dominika isn’t just trapped by her personal circumstances; the world itself is a cage for her.
And inside that cage sexual assault runs rampant. For all of the deception, moles, locales, and aliases, Red Sparrow is obsessed with the circumstances that create sex crimes. Although Dominika refers to Sparrow School as a “Whore School”, a more appropriate term would probably be “Rape School.” Yes, the students are taught how to seduce their targets, but the school itself, led by the unforgiving Matron (Charlotte Rampling), is the rapist on behalf of the state. It forces students to have sex and perform sex acts against their will, and then frames it as “sacrifice.” It also exists in circumstances where the choice for Dominika is death or doing what she’s told, which is no choice at all.
The removal of choice is the most insidious aspect of Red Sparrow, and it’s what gives the movie its haunting power. By framing the story around the removal of these choices, it provides a damning view of power and those that use it. We’re not meant to root for Dominika in the same way we’d root for James Bond or Lorraine Broughton. When she attacks the dancers who injured her, we see that she’s only as good as the world allows her to be, and that world demands unflinching brutality and no forgiveness. There’s nothing hopeful or optimistic in Red Sparrow.
Thankfully, there’s Lawrence giving another commanding performance. Like her turns in The Hunger Games, Winter’s Bone, American Hustle, and Joy among others, Lawrence does steely determination mixed with human vulnerability like no one else. She’s not a superhero here, nor does she ask for our sympathies. There’s a cold pragmatism at play, someone who understands how the game is played and that there’s little room for idealism or love. She’s not a super-spy or some cold, uncaring monster. Vanya has the proper measure of Dominika when he says she sees through people and is always one step ahead of them, and Lawrence, despite still being under 30, conveys that world-weary cynicism and knowledge better than other actors twice her age.
Even though Red Sparrow starts to burn out as it heads into its second-half (an issue stemming more from an overstuffed plot than the acting or direction), it still makes for a fairly compelling experience if only because it’s rare for a major studio to make a movie this disturbing. It’s something that Paul Verhoeven would get away with on a small budget, but Red Sparrow is two hours and twenty minutes of shocking brutality and violence. In an odd way, it’s reminiscent of the studio’s film from last year, A Cure for Wellness, a movie from a visionary director that’s both gorgeous to look at and deeply disturbing. Red Sparrow is not a fun a movie, nor is it a movie that works all the time, but it’s a movie worth seeing.