The big problem with the soon-to-be-forgotten ‘Red Sparrow’ is that it can never quite decide what movie it wants to be. Is this the blockbustery spy romp and Black Widow knockoff like the trailers suggest? Or is it a dark and twisted exploration of the ugly side of espionage and the horrors of getting entwined in the Russian government? It can’t be both.
You can’t build slow-burn tension and disturbingly real themes, then shove a frothy spy game romance down our throats. You’ve got to pick a lane. No one involved in ‘Red Sparrow’ did, though. Perhaps with a more focused and self-aware filmmaker in charge, the tonal challenges of the project could have turned into unpredictable strengths. Unfortunately, this movie comes from the guy who gave you those three ‘Hunger Games’ sequels so indistinguishable that you can’t remember which scenes happened in which movie. ‘Red Sparrow’ is a dull and dreary mess.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina whose career is cut tragically short by a compound fracture that she receives on stage in the middle of a performance. Trapped with no career and a frail mother to care for, Dominika gets desperate. She eventually accepts an offer from her creepy spy uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) to enroll in a secret Russian spy school (like you do). Once there, she realizes that she’s being trained in the arts of sexual seduction to get secrets for the state. Apparently, the story is inspired by a program that exists in Russia. The material is appalling with the young and pretty cadets forced to sexually service disgusting subjects on the spot and in front of the class. Porn is studied. Sex is secretly filmed and reviewed by the group like a school assignment. An unsettlingly cold Charlotte Rampling is in charge, and while she obviously gives a good performance because the veteran actress is incapable of anything else, simply appearing in these sequences feels like a career low.
While the “sex bootcamp” third of ‘Red Sparrow’ is calculated to shock and is presented in such a way that the movie condemns the tactics, the whole thing feels icky in all the wrong ways as well. Particularly at this moment in time, a movie that so overtly traffics rape, coercion, and the abuse of power is tough to pull off. To do so in a mainstream Hollywood thriller in ways that are supposed to be darkly titillating (Jennifer Lawrence does nude scenes and you know the studio and filmmakers considered that a commercial boon to the project)… well, that’s just nasty and wrong.
Some directors, like say Paul Verhoeven or David Cronenberg, could have pulled these passages off, either by leaning into the lurid cheap thrills for morbid satire or making it play as coldly horrific and invasive as it should. Francis Lawrence (‘Constantine’, ‘I Am Legend’) is not that filmmaker. In his hands, this whole section of the movie feels gross and even exploitative of the performers and audience. There are times when the material is supposed to be titillating even though the scenes couldn’t be less sexy. Lawrence simply can’t decide if he’s making an exploitation movie or an art house provocation. As a result, his movie is neither. It’s more of a sleazeball waste of space and talent.
After the horrors of the Russian rape school have finally passed, Dominika can finally become a spy. She’s assigned missions by her pervy uncle and Jeremy Irons’ delightfully creepy general. Obviously, they all involve pain and degradation in some way. They also lead her to an American spy played by Joel Edgerton (continuing his career commitment to being the best part of bad movies).
Theoretically, the film is then supposed to serve up a mix of paranoid suspense and impossibly passionate love. However, Lawrence can’t pull that off either. Although the movie is expensive enough to have glossy production values and gorgeous locations, it never feels alive. Characters come off as comatose rather than troubled (especially Jennifer Lawrence, who appears to have fallen asleep at one point early the shoot and was then propped into frames to deliver her scenes halfway into hazy dreamland). The suspense sequences feel dully drawn-out rather than teasingly tense. ‘Red Sparrow’ lumbers through an overly generous two hours and twenty minute run-time. The film confuses dark drama and sincerity with po-faced sadness and tedious pacing. It’s form without content, and not particularly interesting form either.
Of course, art house posturing could describe the bulk of “serious” dramas made by Hollywood these days. You get used to it. What makes ‘Red Sparrow’ especially insufferable is the fact that it also tries to liven that dull darkness up with big-budget spy games, young naked flesh, shoot-outs and explosions. Somehow, even those overtly sensational elements feel forced and dull. The film contains every element of the Roger Corman school of exploitation filmmaking that make 1970s trash such sleazy fun. Then, through tedious craftsmanship and ill-conceived sensationalism, all the naughty joy melts into mundane mush.
‘Red Sparrow’ is endless and oppressive. You feel trapped by and it and desperate to escape. To an extent, that’s stylistically deliberate, but to a larger and more meaningful extent it’s not. Quite frankly, it’s baffling how this movie got made through the studio system, and it’s insane to think it’s getting a wide release in the current climate. The good news is that all deserved controversy and outrage should be easily avoided, as no one really cares about ‘Red Sparrow’. The low-key marketing campaign has ensured that no one will show up to get pissed off except for Jennifer Lawrence completists, and they’re a dying breed. The once inescapable “It” girl of La-La-Land had better start picking better projects soon. Her string of box office failures keeps getting longer. If ‘Red Sparrow’ is any indication, the quality of scripts that she’s being offered is plummeting as well.