After helming the final three entries of The Hunger Games, director Francis Lawrence seems to have found a sort of muse in Jennifer Lawrence. Who could blame him? She simply commands the screen whenever she’s on it, often outclassing even the most formidable acting talents. She’s a born star who has supplemented her natural talent with learned skill. For her to continue growing as a performer in a cinematic culture that tends to chew up and spit out its leading ladies has been amazing to watch, and Red Sparrow, her latest teaming with Francis Lawrence, shows just how far she’s willing to dive into a character, and just how capable she is of doing justice to difficult material. It only just now occurs to me that writing about two Lawrence’s could pose difficult. I will do my best to maintain clarity without leaning on “J-Law.” In fact, henceforth, she will be referred to as “Lawrence” and the director will be referred to as “F-Law.” This will be fun.
The ad campaign would have one believe that Red Sparrow is at best a Mission: Impossible style thriller, and at worst, Jennifer Lawrence’s Taken. But I assure you neither of these is the case. This is not an action showcase, nor is it a spectacle of post-Atomic Blonde fisticuffs. Red Sparrow is a dense, thoroughly adult espionage tale, the likes of which are rarely seen at the multiplex. As such, I fear that it will disappear into the ether quicker than it deserves.
Based on Jason Matthews’ novel of the same name, the film opens with stunning set piece which layers a high-class ballet performance over an ambiguously staged piece of spy material. Lawrence’s Dominika performs a precise and impressive duet dance (and it appears that Lawrence is doing much of the work herself, but I could be wrong) while Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash is dealing with some sort of clandestine information drop. As the dance grows more intense and thrilling, the drop becomes more dangerous, and when the layered scenes reach their respective conclusion, it becomes clear that nothing will ever be the same for our leading characters. Dominika suffers a career ending injury, and Nash’s personal investment in a case has cost him his cover.
With her life upended and her mother sick, Dominika finds herself in desperate need of work. She is contacted by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), whose place within Russian intelligence serves as Dominika’s best chance to make a buck. Unfortunately for her, the deal isn’t on the up and up, and before long she’s enrolled in the Red Sparrow program, a cruel training camp designed to create soulless agents skilled in all aspects of the spy life. And as awful as it is, Dominika finds out she’s really really reeeeeeeally good at it. Naturally, her work places her in the path of the aforementioned Nate Nash, and then another 2 hours of movie happens that I’d be remiss to spoil.
The script, adapted by Justin Haythe (The Lone Ranger, Revolutionary Road, A Cure for Wellness) is dutiful in covering the many twists, turns, double crosses, triple crosses, and quadruple crosses without getting ahead of the material or leaving the viewer in the dust. Furthermore, it requires active viewership in order to keep up. No, it’s not convoluted, but it’s not interested in hand holding, and it makes for a stronger film. While there are more than a few action beats and moments of stark, surprising violence, the story here is not told in broad strokes, but rather in smaller character moments. A sideward glance, a choice of wording, a guarded inquisition into one’s loyalties. It’s the type of tale that features many satisfying and surprising reveals without hinging upon them for entertainment. Unlike so many films that fall apart in hindsight once you’re in on the secret, Red Sparrow only grows stronger. I would imagine, after only having seen it once, mind you, that the rewatch value is high. I can’t wait to watch it again with a little more knowledge as to who is playing who and to what ends. That said, there are no big gotcha moments either. The joy of Red Sparrow is not the end, but the journey — its just an added bonus that it has a very satisfying conclusion. But I get ahead of myself.
Both Lawrence and Edgerton sizzle as individual performers as well as when they share the screen. Both are nailing their respective accents as well (Lawrence playing a Russian and Edgerton and American). Well, mostly. There are a few moments where Lawrence’s accent chokes on itself, but it’s much better than most. And who really cares when her performance is so committed and bold? Even if you hate the movie, there is just no denying how hard she’s going for it here. Dominika is a role that many performers would find to be thankless —offensive even — but Lawrence turns her into something special.
Visually, Lawrence, along with cinematographer Jo Willems (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) have created a world of deep reds and faded golds that feels both genuine and properly heightened. Yes, this looks like the real world, and is thus playing on the same field as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but it also looks like a movie, which serves to remind us that it’s okay to follow along with the film’s larger stretches of logic. At just under 2.5 hours, it is important that the film be a comfy watch, but given the material, it’s just as important to keep the viewer a bit on edge. Success. Even in its slower moments, Red Sparrow is positively gripping.
Rounding out the cast we have Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, and Ciaran Hinds as high-ranking Russian officials, and Mary Louise Parker as a tragically hilarious booze-addled American diplomat. All of the performers shine without stealing the spotlight, which helps to make this relatively star-studded affair feel not so star-studded — makes it feel real. Admittedly, I still carry some sort of misplaced anger towards Rampling for her inclusion in the utterly dreadful final season of Dexter, but that’s neither here nor there, and I’m only mentioning it so I can bait readers into being interested in a future piece in which I explain how the writers of Dexter set themselves up for the greatest ending in TV history, only to drop a wet fart. Sorry to throw you under the bus, Ms. Rampling, you are awesome.
The film most certainly isn’t for everyone, and I can imagine that the frank ways in which it deals with the sexual tasks of the Red Sparrow agents, as well as the way many of them have their agency robbed from them will not sit well with many viewers, but I invite these viewers to remember that depiction is not advocacy, and just because a character puts up with something, doesn’t necessarily mean that they enjoy it. Personally, I think that Lawrence captures this duality quite well, and it’s the moments of suffering which make her growth as a character that much more exciting and worthwhile. It is important to keep in mind that we are meant to feel uncomfortable at times, just as we are meant to feel deceit, vengeance, and even love at others. This is an adult thriller, and as such would be weakened by purposeful broadening of the material. It’s so rare that we get a movie so disinterested in playing to the widest tastes, and even more rare to see a spy thriller that may be a little too slow and meaty for the teenage set. This isn’t to say that it won’t garner wide appeal, just that it’s disinterested in softening things in order to do so.
With this in mind, I think that Red Sparrow, while far from perfect, merits a trip to the theater. Come for the performances, stay for the compelling story, and even if none of it works for you, I guarantee that you will at least have something to talk about. This is not the type of movie one lets wash over them. This is the type of movie which requires active viewership, which we need more of. Buy a ticket.
Red Sparrow opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.