I feel like there’s a great movie that could have been made out of Red Sparrow but it seems buried among boring exposition that doesn’t ever find itself going anywhere. The one thing I was wondering about Red Sparrow was why did it have to be Francis Lawrence of all people to direct this, because there’s nothing about his direction that feels like he has already established a distinctive style – and given the subject matter of Red Sparrow, it feels like a project that could have worked better under the eyes of someone like Paul Verhoeven. As is, it just leaves an odd taste in the mouth because it never seems to warrant much of what you can already feel that it wants to become.
Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballet dancer who takes another career as an intelligence officer at the persuasion of her own uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenarts). After rigorous training has turned her into a “sparrow,” she is assigned to follow the CIA agent Nate Nash and make contact with a mole putting the security of both nations at a deadly risk. This should be the perfect set up for what could be a perfectly pulpy spy thriller but I’m not even sure that Francis Lawrence is willing to acknowledge that, because the subject matter that he’s dealing with never stretches beyond the surface. Perhaps it’s in part the fault of screenwriter Justin Haythe, who seems to have a habit of writing violence in an aggressive manner as shown by A Cure for Wellness, but given how Francis Lawrence approaches it, it’s disappointing that even the most brutal scenes feel so tame.
I don’t quite think that Jennifer Lawrence is bad in this, but she doesn’t really have all that much to do here. Beyond the supposed emotional crux of her role being rooted within her care for her sick mother, there isn’t really anything particularly compelling about the spy plot other than the fact that you’ll constantly see her being tortured and the film seems to revel in most of that after the first scene of her being raped. Just to say it’s discomforting wouldn’t best describe how I felt, but I’m surprised that these scenes still feel tamed – yet that doesn’t change how I still felt there was nothing engrossing with the narrative to really warrant such violent sequences. Even more troubling is how the film presents them, because there’s no real connection being formed between the violence and Dominika’s growth after she became a “sparrow,” where the training is only seen in tidbits via a flashback and not much else.
Further adding to why it’s so frustrating that the narrative doesn’t ever grab is present from just how perfectly it’s all set up. The cinematography is nice and the central relationship between Lawrence and Richardson is rather moving, but it’s disappointing just to see that Francis Lawrence and Justin Haythe seem to have so little care for investment in that regard and just relegate the more interesting aspects of this narrative as mere exposition. But it’s the world that Red Sparrow creates in itself that’s terrifying, because there’s nowhere in which Dominika can walk ever feeling safe; I just wish that it could at least establish that atmosphere with far more than just redundant torture.
I wonder how this would have played out if a director like Paul Verhoeven tackled the subject matter. I’m not going to jump the gun and call this film misogynistic but I feel that if this film thinks it’s attempting to take a stance against it, it seems to revel too much in the misery rather than attempt to subvert the gender politics of the spy genre. As a matter of fact, this film’s very idea of empowering women which involves having them turn stoic to the violence that they suffer through doesn’t even seem very empowering; it’s very counterproductive. It reminded me of Atomic Blonde, because of how said film only felt like it was rubbing in progressive ideals to make it seem distinguishable when in reality, it isn’t doing anything new. But in Red Sparrow‘s case, you can really tell how much the derivative nature is really holding itself back, because of how its best qualities are clearly working against it.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fox.
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Screenplay by Justin Haythe, from the novel by Jason Matthews
Produced by Peter Chernin, Steven Zaillian, Jenno Topping, David Ready
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 140 minutes