Jennifer Lawrence Takes Flight in ‘Red Sparrow’ (FILM REVIEW)


It’s tempting, and quite frankly easy, to see Red Sparrow as a stand in for the long-desired-but-never-materialized Black Widow movie. On the surface, there a certainly similarities to the spy portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow and the hints Marvel has given us about Scarlett Johansson’s non-superpowered Avenger.

Those similarities are specious. The better comparison here would be Spy Game or even, perhaps, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. There’s certainly a LeCarrian feel to Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of Jason Matthews’s novel. At the very least, that’s what it wants us to think, and it isn’t afraid to stoke the fires of that comparison to whatever benefit it can get.

While Red Sparrow doesn’t quite live up to its own aspirations, that fact never prevents the movie from being enjoyable, even if it is, at its best, still just a spy movie. It’s a perfectly fine spy movie, to be sure, full of twists, turns, and edge of your seat excitement, but that’s all it ever is. A spy movie in 2018 is appealing to a particular subset of movie watchers, and I suspect they’ll be more or less pleased with what they’re given.

Lawrence plays former ballerina Dominika Egorova, who is forced to give up her passion after breaking her leg during a performance. Left with no income or prospects, she is manipulated by her uncle, a Russian Intelligence Service operative (Matthias Schoenaerts) into joining the Sparrow Program, a secretive operation where men and woman are trained to use their wiles and sexuality to obtain access to enemy agents for the purposes of intel or assassination. Once trained, she is assigned to gain access to CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) to help suss out a suspected mole. Nash, meanwhile, thinks he sees an opportunity to turn a Russian agent for the benefit of America.

Red Sparrow is a cat and mouse game that works because we’re never quite sure who the cat or mouse is. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on who is what, the movie throws us a curveball, sending us down a new path of intrigue that deepens the mysteries and motivations of its cast. It’s deeper, even, than who should they trust. It quickly becomes who should we trust, which is the main driver of the film’s effectiveness.

Director Lawrence and star Lawrence previously worked together on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-parts 1 and 2. Their history together gives them a working ease and you can tell both director and star trust each other’s visions. That’s good news for both, considering the dark and often twisted places Red Sparrow often dwells. There are more than a few unsettling and uncomfortable scenes of torture that won’t sit well with some viewers, so caveat emptor.

Potentially even more unsettling are the positions into which star Lawrence is often thrust. At one point she is choked and raped, and it’s admittedly not easy to watch. That’s not even to mention all the psychological and physical torture she’s forced to endure on top of that. This brings up the question of potential bad timing on the film’s part. With the sex and abuse scandals rocking Hollywood, one wouldn’t be blamed for finding much of Red Sparrow’s content to be simply too much to endure.

For her part, Lawrence gives a remarkable performance and plays the role fairly close to her chest. What role she ultimately plays—cat or mouse—is kept well hidden within the text and subtext of the film, and her potentially shifting allegiances are played beautifully. Though often it appears as though she’s struggling to maintain her thick Russian accent, that’s easily overlooked in the face of the rest of the strengths she portrays here.

Those strengths, and subsequently the strengths of Dominika, are the ultimate point of Red Sparrow. Though clearly uncomfortable and hard to watch, the strength of its main character is not in her sexuality, but in her wits. And in those wits we find the true appeal of Red Sparrow—a woman coming into her own and embracing herself at the expense of her enemies.

While on the whole Red Sparrow isn’t particularly special, it still manages to be a taut and thrilling espionage movie that delves deep into character. If you can stomach the film’s more brutal and uncomfortable moments, it manages to pack an intense punch that makes it a worthy entry into the genre.

Red Sparrow is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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