Watching Red Sparrow felt like deja vu. Just six months ago I was in a theater watching mother!, another poorly-received, Jennifer Lawrence-led film. Just six months ago I was watching Lawrence give, perhaps, a little too much of herself to a role. Both films show her character beaten, punished, disrobed, tortured, and gas-lit by men in power. In both instances, I wouldn’t blame viewers who thought it was all a little too much. Yet, in both instances I was also pleasantly surprised. I absolutely loved mother!, and Red Sparrow was far from the train wreck I was led to believe.
The film that some had hoped would be the Black Widow film we’ll never get, or another Atomic Blonde, is in-fact, neither. Red Sparrow is a graphic, deliberate, and convoluted spy fiction tale. The Sparrows are Russian secret agents that use their bodies to manipulate men in power. They are trained to find weaknesses and exploit them, all the while ignoring their own sense of shame or pride.
Red Sparrow opens with Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) suffering a career-shattering accident. Desperate to keep her state-provided housing and healthcare for her sick mother, she agrees to help her uncle, who works in Russian intelligence. The task? Get a high-ranking politician into a hotel room and give him whatever he wants. Whatever he wants is, of course, more than Dominica wants to give. The situation gets out of hand, and the fallout leaves her with a choice — become a spy for the state, or die.
This is the first and last time that Dominika submits to anyone. Her Sparrow training is intended to strip her of self-respect, but she manages to elude even her teacher. When she is forced to give herself to another Sparrow student as part of her training, she humiliates him into a flaccid state. The clear disobedience doesn’t fly for her Sparrow school master, but her uncle and the other heads of intelligence see a use for her, fast-tracking her out of training and into the field.
What follows is a constant back-and-forth of loyalties and intentions. Who is using who? Is Dominika going to betray her country to find safety for her and her mother? Did she seriously just rape a CIA agent? These are all questions I asked myself until the credits rolled.
The plot twists a few too many times, and by the final act I was left dizzy, not quite sure if I was meant to understand what was going on. This is a deliberately-paced film, full of whispered conversations and dark rooms, yet it could have benefitted from a little more context here and there. Red Sparrow has a goal in mind, and it doesn’t make the smoothest trip getting there.
Despite this, the real appeal of Red Sparrow is watching Dominika rise above a sea of suspicion, threats, and physical danger. Yes, it’s a bit shitty that “female James Bond” too often means a heroine that is under constant threat of sexual assault. Yes, we need more films like Atomic Blonde and Black Panther, where our female James Bonds and John Wicks have space to tackle something more than toxic masculinity. However, Red Sparrow is intended to be a dark, ugly, grimey film and the most impressive thing is the subtle ways that Dominika manages to maintain control through all of it. Red Sparrow isn’t a crowd-pleaser, but that’s because it, and Jennifer Lawrence, aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.