Francis Lawrence’s first film away from The Hunger Games franchise revels in ugliness, a surprisingly cruel espionage thriller with a thirst for (often abhorrently depicted) sexual violence. Which may be something of the point: Lawrence (and his star, Jennifer Lawrence) want to leave no doubt that this is the lurid, infuriating stuff of the adult-minded, drenched in sophistication and pain—much like Lawrence’s dystopic vision for The Hunger Games, only anchored in the hyperreal world of the New Cold War we may be starting to realize isn’t “new” at all.
In it, Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), a prima ballerina who suffers a real gross-ass-looking injury on stage, agrees to her Uncle Egorova’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) conniving to work for the Russian government in order to continue receiving State funding, in place of what she earned as a dancer, for her ill mother’s care. From the moment slimy Russian oligarch Ustinov (Kristof Konrad) leers at Dominika before the fated performance, Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems’ camera lingering on his sticky hands touching her bare flesh with relish, it’s obvious their only visual goal is to portray the former Soviet Union as a wasteland of misery and abuse lorded over by cretinous, unhealthy men. After Dominika accepts her Uncle’s first assignment—to switch the phone of the aforementioned lecherous oligarch with a copy, using her feminine wiles to seduce her way into a compliant situation—the abuse begins to blend together. Ustinov, of course, rapes Dominika, before an assassin (Sebastian Hülk) slips in through the hotel balcony and slits Ustinov’s throat (while he is inside her) spilling esophageal blood and various human detritus all over Dominika, over whom the dying Ustinov writhes. Instead of protecting her (let alone consoling her), Uncle Egorova gives his niece an ultimatum: Either she agree to train as a Red Sparrow, which is basically a Russian spy with an aptitude for seduction, or the Russian government will do what it always does to keep situations like this secret. (Hint: He means murder. Murdering her and her mom. Murdering his niece and sister-in-law. Russia, amirite?!)
We get it: Russia is a shitty place and communism reduces human bodies to objects owned by the State. Once matriculated into Red Sparrow School, Dominika regularly debases herself under the tutelage of the Matron (Charlotte Rampling, an actor who is no newbie to films focused on disturbing sexual dynamics), which leads to the second time Dominika is sexually assaulted (and the movie’s second vicious shower room scene), thwarted only by the burgeoning spy’s ability to wrench a shower handle from its base and beat a man senseless with it. Of course, the Matron can not abide such individual displays of power, ordering Dominika to publicly submit herself to her attacker, who, shamed by her forwardness, can’t get an erection in front of his classmates. Matron isn’t happy about this, because Russia sucks and all.
Meanwhile, CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton, weirdly sexy) finds himself in hot water with his superiors when he almost outs a Russian mole he’s shepherding, who, after the CIA pulls Nash from Russia, goes silent, refusing to work with anyone else. Nash, charming and kind-hearted patriot, insists on re-establishing that connection, convincing handlers Marty Gable (Bill Camp, manifestation of the audience’s exhaustion) and Trish Forsyth (Sakina Jaffrey) to let him go back. The Russians know this is happening, so, in the aftermath of Dominika’s smug disobedience of her Matron, they send the now-dangerous ingenue to watch and eventually seduce Nash on a kind of “last chance or your Uncle has a hand in killing your mom” basis. Nash is no dummy, intuiting that Dominika is following him, but he also thinks she’s really hot and, in his noble American heart, wants to save her from the government that’s using her. Dominika dyes her hair blonde in order to attract Nash, leading to one of the most ludicrous displays of hair-dying ever put to film, implying that for all of the supposedly feminist aims buried beneath Lawrence’s shocking treatment of women in his film, simple details about the ordinary exigencies of being a woman seem to totally escape him. Anyway, Dominika and Nash meet, bond, do sex; Dominika agrees to help the CIA in exchange for safe passage for her and her mom out of the Motherland.
You don’t need to have seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or A Most Wanted Man, amongst recent films that may’ve served as inspiration to Lawrence, to know where this goes, which isn’t so much an unexpected direction, as just an expectedly unexpected direction. In other words: Lawrence isn’t a savvy enough storyteller to actually fool the audience—scenes and character actions that make no sense (such as a key, unexplained happening in particular, in which Dominika steals a glass from Nash’s apartment) automatically call attention to themselves. We know that glass, for example, will become part of the inevitable twist ending because it’s part of nothing else, not the overt plot Lawrence leads us through, nor the motivated actions of the characters we’re attempting to understand. This disconnect occurs often: Dominika does things that bear no meaning to the scene at hand, which by default makes her actions suspect, pointing to a twist we know will come because these meaningless actions must have some sort of explanation. A better director could weave these disparate elements into the text while sustaining their meanings in superposition. You probably won’t guess how Dominika will get what’s hers in the end, but you can easily figure out that she will, which makes the film’s final reveal strike all the more hollowly.
Still, throughout Red Sparrow, Lawrence responds to each scene of brutality as if he’s just as caught off guard as the audience may be, willing to show what more squeamish films might balk at, intent on coloring Dominika’s world in the cinereal pall of a totalitarian hellscape, making sure the audience knows—if they’re not already convinced by all the rape and merciless butchery and borderline incest—that international relations between the United States and Russia are just as fucked up as ever. How timely.
Were Lawrence as willing to portray the CIA as an equally, realistically Pyrrhic organization, one just as apt as its Asian nemesis to do whatever it takes to win, whatever that means, then perhaps the dead-serious stakes of Dominika and Nash’s world might feel as visceral as Lawrence intends. Instead, Lawrence indulges romanticism in the dopiest of places, swooning as Nash promises Dominika that he’d never use her the way her Uncle has. That, in fact, he cares about her quite a bit. Which is bullshit. The CIA of Red Sparrow is as unbelievable as Jennifer Lawrence being a prima ballerina, as hard to endure as Lawrence’s K-19: the Widowmaker Russian accent, as regressive and tone-deaf as the idea that a woman must be violated before she can claim any strength or agency. If the two Lawrences wanted to crawl out from under the shadow of their YA iconism this badly, they shouldn’t so blandly indulge such stupid fantasies.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Justin Haythe (screenplay), Jason Matthews (based upon the book by)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts, Trish Forsyth, Bill Camp, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds
Release Date: March 2, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.