Red Sparrow (2018)

“Don’t give him all of you.”

More like a slow, suggestive death knell than the flurry of frenzied action you’re likely to expect, Red Sparrow is the sort of film that simultaneously pushes boundaries without setting any sort of limits, pigeonholing itself into the punishing routine of the plodding spy genre whilst temporarily freeing itself intellectually. It’s internally combative in this way; some parts work independently of each other but also undermine their own precursors and successors in the script. Most importantly, thrusting all of the downright boring spy thriller aspects to the side, Red Sparrow attempts to tell a strong-willed feminist tale (albeit never quite successfully) without feeling the need to be prim or proper or as fragile as a china doll. It’s quite rough around the edges and very literally unsettling, and this less-than-subtle thematic messaging bellows truths worth lending an ear towards, even when it punches you square in the jaw for trying to listen in. When Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow last month, it could’ve just as easily been a warning that Red Sparrow – a cold, dark, purposefully damaging film – was hitting theaters soon. I advise that you enter this foreboding and chilly landscape with great trepidation.

Famed Prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) suffers a career-ending injury. CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) ditches protocol to protect his asset known as Marble. Both trajectories bleed into another. Red Sparrow is too long and belabored and blunt, but it’s stodgy open also exercises finesse, editing two separate storylines into a nearly wordless chorus of action. Dominika is pushed by her Uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) to become a government agent as a last-ditch effort to provide for her ailing Mother. She and Nash toil with trouble. Common drama is heightened by an alienating sense of duress. Describing Red Sparrow – a movie that’s laborious, fleeting, and without a nest to call home – requires more effort than it deserves. It has all of the proper nuts and bolts, even offering up a few spare parts just in case, yet the instructions are foreign to the eye and Braille to the touch. You can see it and you can touch it, but that doesn’t mean you can thoroughly comprehend it.

Personally, I only enjoy the spy genre when it embraces its most extreme angles. North by Northwest, The Bourne Identity, 007, Austin Powers, The Lives of Others, Three Days of the Condor. All are classics and different in their own ways: suspenseful, action-packed, cool, absurd, voyeuristic, survivalist. Red Sparrow unfolds without much identity or attitude, building up and brandishing violent sexuality and twisted manipulation as weapons of mass destruction, reinforcing its problematic and magisterial mindset as a means of pushing the droll plot forward rather than digging into the complexity of character. This film requires a more strict structure than its loosely set beams allow, and while I admired the movie’s willingness to go violently dark, I couldn’t help but think that Red Sparrow was more of an elevator ride than an exploration, staying in the cabin and looking through the open doors rather than venturing out into what’s truly off-limits and taboo.

Francis Lawrence can be a good director; his films control the atmosphere with their lighting, the actors show great trust in his vision, and they create tension by way of their blocking (pay attention to the position of these people on the screen and how moods change with their movement). However, he’s becoming a blockbuster filmmaker with a disjointed palate, materializing fully formed subjects in underdeveloped worlds. Similarly, some have been critical of Jennifer Lawrence’s recent creative choices, arguing that she doesn’t give a shit and that she’s all over the place. That she “doesn’t care.” I’ve met many people who make this claim, and unlike Lawrence – a free spirit who truly seems to act on unguided, unfettered impulse – most of them thrived on a healthy diet of undeserving self-indignity, masking their fear of inequity with a brash exterior. She’s taking on bold, challenging roles because she’s an artist. Sometimes they work (she deserved an Oscar nom for mother!and other times the scale of her celebrity allows her to be sorely miscast (I’m looking at you, Joy). Her work in Red Sparrow leans more towards the former.

As she takes on suitors and faces challenges, stripping completely nude and being bludgeoned and still coming out on the other side alive, the film becomes Lawrence’s own big metaphor to further subjugate us an audience, forcing us to feel what it’s like to be hunted by an aroused audience. She’s had scandalous photos leaked, has been publicly shamed and victimized, and still she’s at the top of her game. Red Sparrow isn’t an important film and it doesn’t advertise its misguided agenda in the best of ways, but it allows one of our best young actresses to hold the screen in only the way she can, shaming us by the proxy of such sad, privileged, guilty male gazes, all while cajoling us into penetrating her being so long as we look her in the eye. Like the film itself, it’s all a very uncomfortable situation and its empowerment comes at a gravely unbearable cost. This less-than-great movie with an auto-pilot plot is worth recommending solely for the vindication Jennifer Lawrence exercises with her vulnerability and a total commitment to finding equal justice, and its prescient assault on male hierarchies sparks some change without having the content to really inspire a more throrough discussion. Red Sparrow oozes with presence; hopefully smarter films come along willing to speak on its behalf.

“You sacrifice whatever needs to be sacrificed.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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