A bit of service journalism ahead: Don’t go into Red Sparrow expecting an action-packed Cold War drama like last year’s Atomic Blonde, or the kind of humanistic spy thriller so well executed on television in FX’s The Americans. Sure, Francis Lawrence’s new film, starring Jennifer Lawrence, is a tale of espionage, of false identities, and of competing American and Russian interests. But it’s set in the modern day, its main character blows her cover almost immediately upon beginning her mission, and the movie is a 140-minute epic of misery and violence. It begins with a gruesome on-screen leg break and only gets worse from there.
Red Sparrow is like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but only if it were directed by Showgirls-era Paul Verhoeven. That’s something of a compliment, but it’s also a warning: Do not approach the theater unless you’re prepared for a film that swerves towards the lurid and shocking at every chance it gets. This is a secret-agent story in which the secret agent angrily complains that she got sent to “whore school” by her government, one that tries to flesh out the undercurrent of misogynistic coercion inherent in so many of these narratives. On some of those fronts, the film wildly misfires, but for a wide studio release headlined by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Red Sparrow is an admirably bold effort.
The movie is based on a 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, an ex-CIA operative who reportedly brought much of his expertise to a story of two secret agents, one Russian and one American, navigating intricate surveillance missions around the world in a game of one-upmanship. I’ll wager that whatever realism may have been present in Matthews’s book has been mostly stripped out by Justin Haythe’s script, which focuses less on the gritty details of espionage and more on the various crimes visited upon the body and soul of Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), the film’s protagonist.
At the start of Red Sparrow, Dominika is a dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow; after a career-ending injury, she’s pressed into governmental service by her creepy uncle, Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking Russian-intelligence official. She has a sick mother (Joely Richardson) that Ivan offers to protect; in exchange, she’ll act as an amateur honeypot, baiting a politician into a compromising position so that he can extract information. That mission quickly devolves into a bloody nightmare, but it’s enough of a success that Dominika is sent to spy camp to become a “Sparrow,” or a secret agent trained in the act of seduction.
This is the “whore school” to which Dominika later refers; it’s an inhuman, months-long training camp seemingly designed to detach budding agents from their own bodies. Run by a stern lady referred to as “Matron” (a deadpan Charlotte Rampling), this is in some ways the most brutal part of the movie, as well as a place where all subtext becomes text. Dominika and her classmates have to strip naked and perform sex acts on strangers, all in front of each other, while Matron looks on with a disapproving glare. Things are only slightly less dreadful outside the classroom, where Dominika beats a male student half to death in the showers for attempting to rape her.
Red Sparrow’s director, Francis Lawrence, worked with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) on the last three Hunger Games movies. There was a bleakness to that young-adult dystopia, of course, but there’s a darker strain of anger to this film, which at times rubs the audiences’ faces in just what an anonymous sex object Dominika is to the men (and sometimes women) around her. Even as a spy, her job is to seduce; there are no montages of Dominika learning martial arts or firing a gun, no long tracking shots of her taking out enemy soldiers one by one. She dyes her hair blonde later in the movie, but it’s not to go atomic; she just knows, through surveillance, that her target sleeps with blonde ladies.
Eventually, Dominika “graduates” and is assigned to ensnare Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA agent who’s in league with a high-ranking Russian intelligence source. Ivan and his superior General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) demand she extract a name from Nash, but Dominika has an ulterior motive; she abandons her cover identity, reveals who she really is to Nate, and seems to genuinely fall in love with him. Or does she? Who’s gaming who? The cat-and-mouse nature of their relationship is the only thing in Red Sparrow that feels like a genuine throwback to the novel; the rest of it is all wrenching torture scenes.
At one point, Mary-Louise Parker drops by as a U.S. senator’s chief of staff who ends up in Dominika’s sights, and she lends a little levity as a consistently soused character who seems baffled by all the intrigue around her. For the most part, though, Red Sparrow is a cavalcade of pain and depressing sexual encounters that seems almost actively uninterested in its audience having a good time. And yet, I must admit, I still enjoyed it—not just because it leads to a tidy but satisfying ending of triple-crosses upon triple-crosses, but also because it’s so nakedly furious about the plot limits of the James Bond-y genre it’s working within. All Dominika is asked to do is seduce and exploit, but she’s obviously capable of so much more. By the end of the film, as she finally exacts her revenge, that becomes even clearer.
Jennifer Lawrence is steely but still somewhat charming—i.e. in Hunger Games mode—and she has to endure quite a lot, including a Russian accent that wavers between “mediocre” and “Boris and Natasha.” But Red Sparrow is ultimately a tale of Dominika fighting to hold onto a grain of empathy in the pitiless world she’s thrust into, and Lawrence dramatizes that well. Dominika still feels like a real person even though each scene she’s in becomes a sexual power struggle of sorts; so much of Red Sparrow’s action takes place behind Dominika’s eyes, as she tries to figure out the desires, and the weaknesses, of the men in front of her.
That’s heavy stuff for a Hollywood blockbuster, and credit to Jennifer Lawrence for helping to get an intense, alienating drama made on a grand scale. But I can’t predict strong word-of-mouth success for this film. Red Sparrow seems destined for life as a vivid little footnote, a graphic throwback thriller that tried to push the boundaries of contemporary studio filmmaking. It’s one of the most fascinating mainstream releases I’ve seen this year—but much like Dominika’s allegiances, that fascination ends up cutting both ways.