Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

March 4, 2018

Red Sparrow’s Promise Goes Unfulfilled

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I had high hopes for Red Sparrow when I saw the trailer. It looked stylish and sharp, and I’m a sucker for a good thriller. At the same time, I had some reservations. A spy using their sexuality as a weapon to seduce targets is a tired trope that never clicked with me in the first place. Nonetheless, I went in with some strong expectations. Directed by Francis Lawrence, Red Sparrow has some points of brilliance, but unfortunately falls into a lot of traps I foresaw.

Red Sparrow opens with two threads running parallel. The first focuses on Dominika Egorova, played by Jennifer Lawrence, preparing for her starring ballet role in Moscow. The second focuses on agent Nate Nash meeting his contact in the same city. Unfortunately they both run into misfortune; Dominika’s partner breaks her leg on stage and Nash’s rendezvous gets blown wide open. Fast forward several months and Dominika is increasingly desperate to pay her mother’s medical bills. That’s when her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) begins to offer her a series of deals. In return for her mother’s care, Dominika has to conduct a series of espionage missions, which ultimately lead her to confront Nash in Budapest. What follows is a web of lies and uncertain loyalties as Dominika tries to navigate her way to a free life again.

Now on paper, this plot sounds amazing and there are in fact several points where this greatness shines through. First, I have to recognize Jennifer Lawrence for excelling in her role (despite her Russian accent slipping once or twice). She manages to deliver the emotions needed at just the right times, and stays enigmatic when need be. Her chemistry with Joely Richardson, who plays Dominika’s mother, quickly cements them as a potential stronghold for the movie’s heart. Their relationship opened the doors for a lot of emotional connection throughout the film.

From the movie’s opening, however, things begin to fall apart. Red Sparrow has two kinds of characters outside of Dominika and her mother: recurring but dull, or engaging but short-lived. For example, Nate Nash just isn’t that engaging — he’s a CIA agent who’s not in it for patriotism, but for excitement, and that’s it. There’s a subplot about one of Dominika’s fellow Sparrows — elite agents that use their sexuality to seduce targets — seducing a U.S. senator’s chief of staff, but both characters involved aren’t allowed to become interesting. Part of the problem is that so many people are introduced, and they look so similar, that it becomes difficult to tell them apart. The other part of the problem is that most of them aren’t developed at all.

Speaking of the plot though, this is where my strongest critiques lie. Red Sparrow deals heavily with sexual violence, and very gratuitous sexual violence at that. There are not one but two rape scenes, Lawrence’s superior in Budapest keeps demanding sexual favors for resources and so on. Even between Dominika and Nash, the moment they secure each other’s trust? Sex scene on the couch. It reeks of an excuse to have Jennifer Lawrence naked on set. It feels especially awkward in light of recent developments in Hollywood, and Lawrence revealing her “degrading and humiliating” experience with nude casting lineups. Of course, the director of Red Sparrow has tried to argue that he intentionally tried to NOT make an erotic thriller. He may want to explain that to other critics on Rotten Tomatoes, who have described it as “sexed-up,” “power-fantasy” and yes, “erotic.”

Okay, so take out the sexual stuff, and what do you have left? Very little. From our initial setup, the story spirals into a mess. It feels like a pendulum of “Oh, she’s loyal to Russia! No, she’s loyal to the Americans! No, she’s loyal to Russia!” ad nauseum for the latter half of the movie. The greatest problem comes from the film’s direction. Many times, it’s left unclear what we’re looking at, so the visual storytelling leaves us baffled. I don’t mean baffled in a “Oh, I’m intrigued now” manner, more of a “What am I supposed to get from this?” way. Post-production only made matters worse with its manic cutting. Scenes end with such abrupt cuts and characters begin talking before they’re on screen — it feels like we’re mentally sprinting from one part to the next. Of course, the sexual scenes take their time nice and slow. I noticed that.

The best metaphor I can think of is a puzzle. A good spy thriller lets you see the pieces as they get assembled. You may not know where they go yet, and some pieces might yet be missing. As the story goes on though, you can see everything take shape. In Red Sparrow, you’re not allowed to see the pieces. So at the end, when the movie takes a twist and tries to say, “Ha, you didn’t see that coming!” it’s not clever. After enough opaque storytelling, the audience just disengages, and I found myself bored. The film is pure shock value, and it can’t even get that right! All the most grotesque scenes occur before the movie’s midpoint, so by the second half, everything seems so quiet and tame in comparison.

Red Sparrow made me alternate between two emotions: disgusted and bored. Once I left the theater they simmered into a cold, unpleasant bleakness. The rampant sexual violence churns the stomach without any kind of message or statement to justify its inclusion. Meanwhile, the plot isn’t clever enough to keep the audience engaged. Afterwards, I couldn’t remember most of what had actually happened, and left the theater feeling sickened and cross. Again, Jennifer Lawrence did well with the material she got, but if they had spent more time showing the audience clues and less time showing off sexual content, Red Sparrow could have easily been great.

David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at dgouldthorpe@cornellsun.com.