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.