Red Sparrow reunites Jennifer Lawrence with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence in this attempt at a sexy spy thriller. I use the term “sexy spy thriller” very, very loosely. A spy thriller it can be. Sexy, however, it is not. The film exploits the female body for the plot while being devoid of any emotion and even nuance. It’s thoughtless in its use of sexual assault and fails in its attempts at being a smart thriller.
Ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a master at her craft and considered one the best ballerinas in her dance company. The company also pays for her mother’s health bill and offers Dominika a place to stay. But her dream and her life are shattered after a stage accident ends with her leg being badly broken. Afterward, she’s made an offer by her creepy uncle, Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), to execute a mission for the Russian government in exchange for his financial help. But the mission puts her in a position with only two choices: Face death or become a spy and attend a training school that teaches how to use sex and your body for missions. After her training is complete, Dominika is asked to seduce a CIA agent named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), but things quickly take a turn for the worse.
Red Sparrow is completely devoid of emotion. Never once does Jennifer Lawrence’s character really get to explore what she’s feeling and her exploitation is used to further the story, all while she continues to be controlled and manipulated by the men around her. From the very beginning, her story is driven by the actions of the males who come and go in her life. From her boyfriend, to her uncle, to the CIA agent, everything is framed in a way where she doesn’t ever have control. We are given the reasons behind why she feels she has no choice, but there’s absolutely no emotional follow-through or impact. The film centers all the things that happen to her and very quickly moves on. By the end, Red Sparrow might have you believing that Dominika had some semblance of control over all of the situations happening to her, but this is never the case. It’s even worse that the film pretends that any of what happens to Dominika is handled effectively, but it’s just blatant violence for the sake of violence, plain and simple. If the film cared about the aftermath of Dominika’s experiences with sexual assault, it would have taken the time to focus more on her perspective.
There’s one scene where we are explicitly told that sexual assault is about power, all while Dominika asks her almost-rapist to have sex with her in front a classroom full of would-be spies. It’s as if the scene itself was made simply to have Jennifer Lawrence stand naked for several minutes while we get spoon-fed information that we already know. The sexual aspects of the film and the nudity are excessive and largely unnecessary. The plot itself is dark, but empty and lacks depth and any sense of cohesiveness. It’s like the director just wanted to make a film that seemed sexy on the surface but with no substance whatsoever.
Sex is used as a weapon and framed as though it’s supposed to be in Dominika’s line of work, but it makes the torture and sexual violence all the more problematic because the film only uses sexual violence as justification for the movie’s plot. Just the fact that rape and murder are used as coercion for Dominika’s new life is an issue. Why is it necessary for the film to use sex and a woman’s body as a “weapon”? A spy should have more tools and skills than just that. Red Sparrow’s use of sex and sexual favors as a plot point is deeply frustrating and infuriating.
Besides the problematic parts of the plot, Red Sparrow is poorly paced. With a run time of two hours and nineteen minutes, the film drags on for far too long and is borderline dull in many instances. The film is also cold and distant and Lawrence’s performance doesn’t add much to the story being told. There’s no real exploration of the violence inflicted on her. She’s told that her body is now owned by the Russian government and because of that, she must be complicit in their treatment of her, but the film doesn’t allow Lawrence’s character to vocalize anything beyond physical inclinations, both forced and otherwise. Even the “romance” between Lawrence’s Dominika and Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash is underwhelming and doesn’t add anything to the film beyond setting up Nate as a would-be savior.
Red Sparrow is an exploitative film that banks on the use and abuse of the female body for no reason other than for it to be a plot device. The movie enjoys making Dominika suffer at all costs and almost every scene is framed so that there’s fear: fear of violence, fear of rape, fear of being caught and killed, and fear of torture. There’s no breathing room whatsoever and the manipulation by all of the male characters, and there are a lot of them, as well as the explicit use of nudity and sexual assault, is deeply disturbing. Red Sparrow winds up being a very slow spy thriller without substance and is an example that even though there’s a woman at the forefront, it isn’t really her story and it’s the men–director, screenwriter, and characters–who are still very much in control of the narrative.