Francis Lawrence’s spy thriller “Red Sparrow,” based on ex-CIA agent Jason Matthews’ 2013 novel, hit theaters March 2. Fans who expect Jennifer Lawrence to play a glamorous, badass spy — a female version of James Bond or something similar to Charlize Theron in last year’s “Atomic Blonde” — are in for a rude, uncomfortable, and stomach-turning surprise.
Viewers who champion Lawrence for laying bare the very unglamorous side of cold war espionage in gritty, bloody detail will be less disappointed.
Lawrence, who won an Oscar award for Best Actress in 2013, gives a remarkable performance, accompanied by Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, and Jeremy Irons.
Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a star Bolshoi ballerina whose career-ending injury forces her to reconsider how to care for her invalid mother. Enter Schoenaerts who plays Dominika’s creepy (Putin-esque) uncle who offers a way out. The way out is Egorova’s evening stint as a honeypot; she uses her beauty to convince a rich Russian oligarch to let down his guard. It is no surprise that the simple plan goes horribly wrong or right —depending on your frame of reference — and Dominika is shipped off to sparrow training.
The training process to be a sparrow is essentially what Dominika calls a “whore school” later in the film. Students are trained to use sexuality to seduce, manipulate, and eliminate targets.
Rampling, as The Matron, dispassionately explains that the recruits’ bodies now belong to the state; superiors can ask them to do any sickening thing in defense of Mother Russia.
After defending herself in the shower from an attempted rape, Dominika ends up interrogated as to why she would dare damage an agency asset. If there was any question— either in the audience’s mind, or Dominika’s — that life as a Russian spy was going to be all cool gadgets, fast cars, and cocktail parties, a couple of quick-cut edits between scenes of bondage, humiliation, and water torture give a definitive answer that it’s not.
Combining unspeakably violent visuals, misogynistic themes, and a love story whose believability is as debatable as each lover’s motives, “Red Sparrow” might leave audiences with little to enjoy. Indeed, if viewers expect an entertaining spy popcorn movie, they are sure to find little pleasant about “Red Sparrow.” It touches on all of the repellent scenes it can: rape, torture, murder, disease, injury, and incest.
The film does an admirable job at setting a stark tone — the hospitals, apartments, and government offices help establish the film’s Soviet-era feeling. However, the Matron explains that the action takes place in modern-day Russia after the Cold War. The fact that secrets are still exchanged through late 80s floppy discs makes one unsure about when this tale unfolds.
What is unquestionable, though, is that even though the agents have the use of cell phones and thumb drives, for Americans anyway, Dominika does not rely on superior technology or gee-whiz gizmos. Instead, she relies on her wits.
In the end, the film accomplishes its aim of removing the luster of living as a spy. It offers gritty insight into the real, horrific life of a government agent caught in a continuing war between the United States and Russia.
Viewing the movie in terms of what it is rather than what you expected will undoubtedly help you get more out of “Red Sparrow.” Bloody, violent, and sexually-disturbing, “Red Sparrow” is likely to be an unforgettable film. Movie versions of the two remaining novels in the trilogy will probably follow, even though this movie was not an enjoyable one in particular.