Red Sparrow: The Thief and the Receiver, by David Bax
It’s 2018 and the spy/espionage thriller long ago became a fully recognizable genre of its own. So, how do you make one today without it being derivative? With the thorny and stylish Red Sparrow, director Francis Lawrence admits that, in most ways, you don’t. But one way to stand out, at least, is with characterization. Jennifer Lawrence’s secret agent, Dominika Egorova, is not James Bond; she doesn’t take joy in her work. She’s no Jason Bourne either; she wasn’t conditioned so much as the rage and violence that already existed in her was channeled. For what it’s worth, she’s also no John Wick or Atomic Blonde‘s Lorraine Broughton; this isn’t that kind of movie. If Dominika brings to mind any character from recent movie memory, it’s not a government agent or contract killer at all. It’s Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with all of her wounded ferocity. And this movie, like that one, is far heavier than its genre trappings would suggest.
Dominika is a ballerina with the Bolshoi who, after injuring her leg, is recruited by her intelligence officer uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) to help with a sting. When that operation goes haywire and results in Dominika’s rape, she gets two choices: be killed or be trained as an agent of seduction, a “Red Sparrow.” Once prepared, her first assignment puts her in the orbit of America CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and potentially provides her an opportunity to seek retribution against the people and the system that used and abused her. The fact that the bad guys here are Russian feels both like a throwback and very of the moment. When Dominika’s Sparrow instructor, known only as Matron (Charlotte Rampling), insists that the Cold War isn’t over so much as simply broken into shards, it may be the most concise summation I’ve heard of American/Russian relations today. (One trope that appears here which I could stand to never see again, though, is the one where male characters in movies like this refer to a female character as “the girl” despite being perfectly familiar with her name).
Twisty and intriguing as it may grow over its running time, all of the plot is essentially allegory. Red Sparrow is primarily a movie about sexual assault and being a survivor of it. Whether it is exploitative of these issues is perhaps better addressed by those with more experience than I have but I can tell you that Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Jason Matthews (adapting a novel by Justin Haythe) seem more than willing to invite such accusations. The first coping method, suggested by Matron, is fittingly realpolitik. “Inure yourself,” she tells Dominika and the rest of the potential Sparrows. In other words, steer into the disconnect from your own body you feel as a result of your trauma and use your now-compromised form to your own ends (or, preferably, those of your country). To be fair to Red Sparrow, we are never intended to view this approach to psychological anguish as a healthy or viable one but we do see its realities played out multiple times in the harsh, graphic Sparrow training sequences. This is the most upsetting—and potentially the most morally questionable—section of the film.
Once Dominika graduates to the field, Red Sparrow, to its credit, avoids making Nash the perfect foil to Matron; he’s not some kind of savior figure. Or rather, intriguingly, the movie does make him the savior and then interrogates that very role. After all, he also stands to gain from Dominika’s cooperation. Thus, both her Russian and American handlers come to demand from Dominika a state of perpetual victimhood. Earlier, I invoked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as both movies feature the rape of their protagonists as an inciting incident. Another comparison, though, would be to position Red Sparrow as a (lesser) companion to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. Both movies aim to confound viewers by having leads who react to their own assaults in ways other than those we have socially proscribed.
Yet I want to stop short of any full-throated praise of Red Sparrow and not just because, not being a sexual assault survivor myself, all of the above is speculation. No, it shouldn’t take personal experience to recognize how much of the movie feels like exploitation. Multiple scenes likely warrant trigger warnings for both physical and psychological abuse (I don’t know if we’ve yet hammered out a sliding scale for trigger warnings vs. spoilers).
Okay, but is the movie any good? Yes, actually, it is. Francis Lawrence’s visual style, in which large scale imagery of saturation and balance are presented with rigorous control, has yet to lose its potency; in another Dragon Tattoo comparison, he’s like a Grand Guignol David Fincher. And yet, despite his exactness, he’s never been blind to his characters and the emotions roiling beneath the surface. From the angst of John Constantine to the aching loneliness of I Am Legend’s Robert Neville to the fierceness and loyalty of Katniss Everdeen, his films have always been imbued with strength of feeling. He is devoted to the idea that still waters run deep and Red Sparrow is no different. Consider this your warning.