Coming in with a 140-minute running time, Red Sparrow is a pretty long movie by most standards. It’ll surely test the patience of most of you, but some of its more prevalent themes will keep you engaged because they’re equal parts engrossing and horrifying.
Jennifer Lawrence leads the cast as Dominika Egorova, a ballerina whose career is cut short when her male dancing partner makes a clumsy mistake, leaving her left leg in shambles below the knee. While Dominika is having her leg fixed, CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton) botches an information exchange with a Russian mole, almost getting them both caught. He gets out of Russia in good time to save his skin, but in the process paints a target on his back with the Russians now aware of a larger issue at work.
Dominika, with her ballet dreams shattered, is about to lose the financial support she receives from the Bolshoi Ballet Company. Knowing she needs to take care of her ailing mother, her creepy uncle Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a higher up in Russian Intelligence, convinces her to join a branch known as the Sparrows, where young Russian men and women learn seduction to further the country’s political agenda (like trying to get in bed with the American President).
While the plot can get convoluted most times as is common with mystery thrillers, there are numerous aspects of the movie worth appreciating.
Modern Cold War Context
There’s been a retreading of the cold war lately, starting with television’s The Americans and Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde. While these two entries focus mostly on Reagan times in the 80s, Red Sparrow is a modern spin on the cold war, exploring American-Russian relations and covert operations today.
It’s exciting to see how things have changed between now and then, especially on the Russian side. The head matron (Charlotte Rampling) at Sparrow school puts it best, saying the Cold War never ended but broke into pieces, with the West drunk on shopping and social media. Oh, but not the Russians. They have their eyes on the prize. Clearly, because the Americans don’t have Sparrow school, where young adults are forced to practice all kinds of sex acts, mostly undesirable, for a greater good. A young homophobic Sparrow girl, for instance, is forced to perform oral sex on a gay man, completely going against her free will and ingrained ideologies. That’s what it means to serve a higher purpose, doing things you don’t want to.
Red Sparrow is an eye opener when you get to see how Russian covert operations have changed, and also how they haven’t. Yes, they have their version of James Bond’s Q who talks about invisible chemical compounds to trace people, but they have the same old-school mentality of doing whatever it takes to get the job done. There hasn’t been a compromise in discipline, and this new reincarnation of Russian spy faculties is something to behold.
Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow
Then, of course, we have the leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence. Once you get used to her Russian accent (which should take 10 minutes or so), the rest of her performance is reliably good. She has the whole Russian citizen starter pack going on. There’s the accent. There’s the relative stone-cold demeanor in place, which an online commenter described as the “let’s get this over with” attitude, and the general sense of doing whatever it takes to get the job done.
The film also aims to be a sexy spy thriller, and though it doesn’t hit the mark with that goal (at all, explained later), the only person making a decent attempt to make the movie “sexy” is Lawrence. There are some Sparrow school courses that will make your jaw drop that tiny bit, but once you realize that these students are learning seduction out of their free will, well then, boner killed.
The Violence and Gore
Continuing on the theme of Red Sparrow trying to be a sexy spy thriller, the main reason for its failure in that area is the central premise. These students, including Dominika, are being sexual not because of an attraction to someone else, but because their bodies are controlled by the state.
But while the film fails miserably on the sexiness front, it succeeds on the discomfort end. With the heightened awareness of sexual misconduct and assault in America these days, some scenes in the film will be difficult to watch. They handle consent, rape, and sexual violence; most of these sequences do end up bloody. It’s a squeamishly monstrous combination that stands as a testament to the lengths the Sparrows will go through. Some might argue that these acts could have been implied with scene cuts, but lingering on the moments to witness the real disgust only makes the images sink deeper into your mind.
When we aren’t dealing with sexual violence, we delve into torture. And these old-school Soviet types do get creative with their methods: cold showers, rock music, and skin grafting tools. There’s more that hasn’t been mentioned, but the point is that you’ll find it difficult to keep your eyes on the screen. And that’s what Sparrow is good at, creating visceral moments to capture the true horror of the characters’ actions.
Most mystery-thrillers have a barrage of revelations that come to the forefront right at the very end, turning the last five to ten minutes into total chaos. Sparrow is no different and makes sure Chekhov’s guns (sic) don’t go to waste.
There are points early in the first and second act that create some questions, and the final minutes manage to give the answers. Dominika’s actions, especially her spying movements and observations, warrant you to notice some objects here and there. Why is she at a certain place? Why is she looking at that thing on the desk? Why is she so interested in talking to this person? Sparrow gives the answers, and the audience rightfully deserves that.
This technique of pointing out details that should hint at things to come, or how events will unfold, is rewarding in its own way. The filmmaker gives you the option to presume what will happen. If you figure things out in advance, well, that’s an accomplishment in itself. If not, you can always say, “man, I should have seen that coming.”
Red Sparrow will let you fall into one of those two camps.
Red Sparrow isn’t revolutionary in its approach and it doesn’t redefine the spy thriller genre. If you don’t digest too many of these movies, it’s going to be refreshing in its delivery of twists and violence. It can be quite the eye-opener in that regard, and having Jennifer Lawrence be part of a newer Cold War environment, which retains parts of the old order, is going to give you new details to think about.