I went into Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow with a bit of trepidation. The trailer was not very helpful, making the movie look like a retread of last year’s Atomic Blonde, while also looking like nothing more than generic spy flick filler. That there’s a supposed topicality — with its glut of Russian spy intrigue — didn’t seem very convincing in a trailer full of garroting and sexual tension. What I found, however, is a movie that’s a little more than what its marketing team put out into the world, a film that’s surprisingly trashy and unrelentingly grim.
This, of course, does not make Red Sparrow a good film per se and is definitely not an endorsement. While there’s something fascinating about its luridness, it’s simply not fun enough to be interesting. It’s too long and too overbearingly unpleasant to work as a whole, while at the same time simply having nothing greater than its need to shock to really pull you in. Mostly, it’s fascinating in the sense that Jennifer Lawrence is a major star leading a movie this angry, sexualized (yet not sexy) and grim.
But this is all the film really has — which, admittedly, is more than most movies do, while also meaning very little in the scheme of things. The setup is that Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika (complete with wonky Russian accent) is a ballerina who’s sent to Sparrow school, a Russian government program where she’s taught not only things like picking locks and shooting guns, but also how to extract information through intimacy and seduction. As a plot device, all of this is fine, but the movie really wants to get into the muck.
The training section of the film is especially harrowing, as there are reasons that Dominika refers to it as “Whore School,” as the trials she’s put through are uncomfortable in their subjugation. Once the plot gets moving, things don’t get all that much better, wallowing instead in torture and violence, while using a vaguely feminist critique of sexual power to justify it all.
In this sense, the movie doesn’t work either, mostly because Dominika is just as unpleasant and duplicitous as everyone else in the film. And perhaps this is the greatest sin Red Sparrow commits: It’s simply not fun. It’s full of plot twists as the audience is supposed to figure out whose side the protagonist is on and what her goal really is, while also raising some interesting questions about how her ability to seduce ties into a traditional sexual power dynamic. But that doesn’t mean I really want to watch anything that’s happening in the movie. It’s 140 minutes of joyless ugliness with a big-budget sheen, while never having the sense to crack a smile or actually embrace its trashiness. Some curiousness is buried underneath it all, but that’s hardly a recommendation. Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity. Now playing at AMC Classic River Hills, Carolina Cinemark Asheville, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.