A Brutal Bird

Red Sparrow is a nasty, exploitative and pointless film

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Red Sparrow
Opens March 2, wide

The #metoo movement is making the public aware of the crimes committed against women on sets. A big example is the treatment of Uma Thurman by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill: his cavalier disregard for her safety led to a car accident that permanently injured her (and, less importantly, makes watching the film an uncomfortable experience).

In theory, Red Sparrow is a timely story about a young woman coming into her own in the most dire of circumstances, and turning the tables on all the men who tried to control her. Unfortunately there’s so much exploitation that it makes you wonder if the feminist stance is just a façade.

Based on the book of the same name by Jason Matthews (a bad John Le Carré knock off), Red Sparrow follows the rise of Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a ballerina with bad temper and worse luck. Fired by the Bolshoi following a gruesome work injury, Ergorova accepts a job from her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone) as a spy.

Dominika attends Sparrow School, where she learns self-defence and endurance. But the bulk of her training involves emotional manipulation and putting her charm and beauty in the service of the state. Soon enough, she gets her first mission: seduce a CIA operative (Joel Edgerton, It Comes at Night) and convince him to give up the name of his Russian contact.

Red Sparrow isn’t just terrible PR for the Bolshoi. Dominika is basically an R-rated copyright infringement against the Avengers’ Black Widow, with a bit of Atomic Blonde sprinkled in for good measure. While the segment surrounding Sparrow School gets some tracking, the spy games are perfunctory at best: the whole “mole” business is the most basic storyline in the playbook and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy already did the definitive version.

The one element of the film that’s completely unexpected is just how vicious it gets. Rape as a plot device is often used for effect by bad filmmakers. Red Sparrow’s rape scenes are blunt and unnerving, so much so that you feel bad not for the character, but for Jennifer Lawrence.

Gratuitous sexual violence isn’t Red Sparrow’s only repulsive aspect. There’s a fair amount of inventive gore and J-Law receives more punishment than she did in mother! (if not as artfully presented). It all fails, however, to overcome the story’s weakness: the source material is feeble and it’s made worse by scriptwriter Justin Haythe (The Lone Ranger, A Cure for Wellness), who can’t figure out how to transfer Dominika’s “superpower” (synaesthesia which causes her to “see” emotions as colours) to the screen. Furthermore, there are a gazillion of relevant plotlines that are not even touched.

Then there’s director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend). It’s fair to presume he developed a good rapport with J-Law after directing the final three Hunger Games movies, but he clearly cashed all his chips in this one. It’s obvious the actress has confidence in him — a case of misplace trust if I ever saw one.

Not everything in Red Sparrow is terrible — Charlotte Rampling classes up the joint as the sparrows’ mentor — but outside a very small group (people who think The DaVinci Code qualifies as literature), I don’t know who could possibly enjoy this one.