Red Sparrow continues at the AMC 12.
Red Sparrow, the highly marketed, critically panned, “Russian” espionage thriller is my favorite movie of 2018. That might be a career-ending statement, but in my defense, it’s barely March; the competition is not fierce.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as prima ballerina Dominika Egorova turned international spy. The film, adapted from former CIA agent Jason Matthews’ novel with a script by Justin Haythe, reunites Lawrence with Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence. (Big names like Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher were at one time attached to the project. Imagine that.)
In the opening sequence, we see Lawrence’s exquisite body double (Isabella Boylston) dance what proves be her last performance before her partner “accidentally” (it was no accident!) breaks her leg on stage. Enter Dominika’s creepy uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), who swiftly pushes his niece to join an elite group of what are essentially sex slaves (the titular “red sparrows”), trained in the art of intelligence gathering via seduction, or else they’ll shoot her in the head and her vaguely sick mother will die and who will pay for her apartment, and so on.
The movie spends an obscene amount of time convincing us how little choice Dominika has with regard to the onslaught of horrific things that happen to her, and herein lies the major problem. Throughout the film’s egregious two-hour and 19-minute running time, we will see Dominika full-on raped, almost raped, tortured and twice splattered in blood. At “whore school” (that’s not me, that’s what the movie calls it) Dominika and other students are made to perform vile sexual acts in front of the class to show their dedication to Mother Russia. The classroom scenes look and feel like The Hunger Games with a YA reading level to match, made all the more discordant by the movie’s hard-R themes. And then, get ready for this: Lawrence shows her breasts in the most clinical, unsexy way imaginable, while spreading her legs wide open with nothing but a petrified fellow classmate blocking our view.
Red Sparrow’s absurd dedication to fake accents and its cartoonish depiction of Cold War Soviet politics has a cunning way of getting American audiences off the hook by doing all the disrobing for us. But make no mistake: This is puritan, American sexuality in cinema at its worst.
The first half of Red Sparrow is so distinctly terrible, revolting and kind of boring that it’s almost mean of me to recommend the movie — but hear me out. In the second half, we get a relatively by-the-numbers espionage thriller, but with a lot more finesse and style than I think other critics have given it credit for. Inexplicably, the bad stuff fascinates me, but beyond that, the story really picks up steam once Joel Edgerton arrives as American CIA operative Nate Nash. His story is intercut with Dominika’s from the beginning, but it only matters once Edgerton and Lawrence are pitted against each other. Ostensibly, both are grifting the other in service of their country, but are they also falling in love? On the subject of chemistry: I would say they have a lot of it, whereas other critics have said they have “zero.” Are these and other questions like it wholly subjective? Is my profession a fraud?
Even when Lawrence finally has consensual sex for the first time in the movie (and well past the halfway point), she performs it with a strange, misplaced stoicism, as though Mother Russia still has a gun to her head. And yes, I feel disgusting and guilty, but also duty-bound to tell you: I found the whole thing irrepressibly thrilling.