Never for a second during Red Sparrow—all two hours and twenty minutes of it—did my attention lag. It’s a stylish, sexy spy thriller that features another star-making performance by the indefatigable Jennifer Lawrence. Despite the fact that it belongs to a genre we’ve seen countless iterations of, Red Sparrow manages to pull off some surprises, and avoids many of the cliches we’ve come to expect from espionage thrillers. (Blessedly, there is only one car chase). But the very characteristics that make Red Sparrow stand out—its “empowered” female protagonist, and overt presentation of sexual politics—are exactly what left me so ambivalent.
On a cold, dark night in Moscow, two men in overcoats exchange an envelope under the lamplight; elsewhere, a prima ballerina poses with admirers before going onstage. In the moments to follow, one of the men fires his gun and runs for his life, while the other slips into the darkness. The prima ballerina collides with her partner, shattering her leg onstage. The two events are seemingly unrelated, though the increasingly furious cross-cutting tells us they soon will be.
The fleeing man in the park is revealed to be CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), a brash operative who’s been stationed in Russia to glean information from a government mole; the ballerina is Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), star of the Bolshoi Ballet whose relative fame allows her to pay for a modest flat and healthcare for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson). The night results in harsh consequences for them both: Nate’s sudden run for it attracts all the wrong kind of attention, and he’s benched by his superiors, despite his insistence that his mole won’t work with anyone but him.
Dominika has it even worse—a single moment has stripped her of both her dreams and her livelihood. No longer able to perform, it’s only a matter of time before the company stops providing for her and her mother. Enter smarmy Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts, still devastatingly handsome), an official of the Russian External Intelligence Agency, who never saw an opportunity he didn’t exploit. He promises his niece a secure future if she helps with a simple mission—seduce a businessman and steal his phone. But everything is a set up when Uncle Ivan is concerned, and Dominika ends up witnessing a murder, leaving her with two options: be eliminated as a “loose end,” or join the “Sparrows,” a state-run espionage program. One guess as to what she chooses.
The Sparrow program, or “whore school” as Dominika refers to it, is training in the art of perception, manipulation, and seduction. She’s forced to prove her skills, and her patriotism, through a series of increasingly degrading scenarios (public disrobing, performative sex acts, faculty groping). Once deemed ready, she’s sent to Budapest to stage a “chance” encounter with Nate, in the hope that he’ll eventually reveal his mole. Nate, supposedly no idiot, is immediately suspicious, and sets out to make a double agent of her. Sex, torture, vodka, betrayal, and a particularly grisly scene involving an electronic cheese grater ensue, with Dominika getting the short end of just about all of it.
Lawrence, who’s the at the center of virtually every scene, proves once again that she has the charisma and magnetism to carry a film. Her Russian accent, though imperfect, is at least not distracting, and she thoroughly abandons her goofy offscreen persona to return to the steely resolve we first saw her exhibit in Winter’s Bone. She’s believably capable of just about anything, which helps sell the film’s more farfetched moments. Joel Edgerton, far from awful, is merely fine, which may have more to do with a flimsily written character than with his actual performance.
The real problem here is their chemistry, or lack thereof. Amongst this elaborate guessing game of who’s playing who, their devotion to each other is the one thing (I think?) we’re supposed to be sure of. (Their characters’ actions make little sense if they’re not in love.) But for two people who endure torture and the threat of death with such dedication on behalf of king and country (or dictator/motherland), it’s a tough sell to make us believe they’d suddenly forgo patriotism for someone who was more or less a stress fuck. Lawrence has noticeably stronger chemistry with Schoenaerts (despite the fact that he’s supposed to be her lecherous relative), to the point where I felt myself perversely hoping for a forbidden smooch.
Joining Lawrence, Edgerton, and Shoenarts are acting greats Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds, who make appearances as Russian officials, and have apparently earned the right to forgo any attempts at accents other than their own. The true bright spots in the supporting cast are Mary Louise Parker, who plays a corrupt senator with a penchant for getting hammered, and Charlotte Rampling, as Dominika’s kinkily sadistic headmistress.
But the real problem with Red Sparrow isn’t that its love story is unconvincing. It’s that underneath its stylish aesthetic and moments of shocking violence, there simply isn’t much else. When I left the theater, I felt vaguely impressed by Dominika’s resilience, intrigued by a new glimpse into the world of international espionage, and reminded all over again of J. Law’s babe-aliciousness. But that’s about it. Which is perhaps why the scenes of sadistic torture and sexual violence left me so unsettled—sure, they’re supposed to be disturbing; something would be wrong with me or the filmmakers if they weren’t. But the fact that they are unaccompanied by any thoughtful examination of their implications is—and I hate that I’m about to use this word—irresponsible. By all means, put the toughest, meanest, ugliest, most heartbreaking parts of the human experience on the table, but then for the love of art, you had better be prepared to address them with the time and thoughtfulness they demand. If the only takeaway is that we should be in awe of Dominika’s ability to endure, period, that’s not enough for me. Her indomitable character is certainly impressive, but the fact that it’s been developed as a coping mechanism after repeated incidents of rape, violence, and humiliating subjugation makes it it feel gross to champion it.
Much has already been said about Lawrence’s response to the material, particularly in relation to her experience as the victim of a phone hack (and subsequent nude photo release) in 2014. The incident left Lawrence feeling understandably angry and violated, and contributed to her previous reluctance to shoot onscreen nudity. However, her trust in director Francis Lawrence (her director in three of the four Hunger Games films) caused her to reconsider, and she’s since gone on to say that the experience of filming Red Sparrow’s sexually explicit scenes was “empowering…I got something back that was taken from me.” Which is empowering, and encouraging, to hear.
Except that for audience members, watching Red Sparrow is all of the taking without any of the getting back. I spent time wondering why I could more easily stomach (and thoroughly enjoy) the equally violent Atomic Blonde, whose heroine Lorraine suffers exponentially more blows. The difference is that—in addition to the fact that she gets to fight back and ostensibly chose her lifestyle for herself—though Lorraine is battered and bloodied, she’s not humiliated.
Which led me to realize that what’s most difficult to watch when it comes to rape is neither the violent context nor the physical act of unwanted penetration. Rather, it’s the feeling of humiliation that accompanies it, the sense of utter degradation and shame that’s produced when one human wholly disregards the personhood of another. Red Sparrow appropriately depicts this humiliation, but seems to conclude that eventual retaliation is a sort of victory. Which is not only overly simplistic, but a disservice to the actual work of healing, a process much harder and more beautiful than an act of revenge. Ultimately, Red Sparrow fails not because it pushes the limits too far, but because it doesn’t push them far enough.