“They gave me a choice: die, or become a Sparrow.”
Red Sparrow is both a timely film and one that wouldn’t get greenlit today. Brooding, pensive, undaunted, uncomfortable and never afraid to be brutal or unsettling, director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) didn’t make the sexy, salacious thriller being sold by the marketing team right now. Rather, he made something with deeper, darker, more disturbing intentions — an unsexy, unflinching adult espionage drama centered around perversion and sexual liberation, laced with social relevance in today’s #MeToo movement. It’s a bitter, biting piece of work —adapted from the acclaimed novel written by former CIA operative Jason Matthews and clearly trying to emulate (and trying to rise to the same level as) David Fincher’s similarly demented, disheartening take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Is it as successful? Not quite. But is it bad? Not entirely. Passionate-but-cold-hearted, lofty-but-also-flighty, it’s a weirdly middling film. Red Sparrow is not without its convictions, but it doesn’t rise to the challenges it presents. It has a purpose, but it doesn’t hold significance. Boosted by a committed, meaningful lead performance from Jennifer Lawrence, however, Red Sparrow does gain some trajectory. If only it had enough flying power to soar.
Jennifer Lawrence gives her bravest, most mature performance to date as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballet dancer who suffers a tragic injury during a stage performance and finds her future left uncertain. With limited options, she turns to her uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Foreign Intelligence Service chief, who gives her an unusual proposition. Dominika is sent to Sparrow School, where she’ll learn to become a seductress and learn how to use her sexuality to the utmost advice of both herself and Russia.
The process is expectedly grueling, but she doesn’t lose her confidence. Eventually, Dominika’s power of seduction finds her intertwined with Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA agent who messed up pretty bad during a big mission and who is trying to win back the good graces of his superiors. Dominika sets out to track the agent, but she finds herself betraying Russia as she gets closer to Nate. From there, with the help of Nate Nash, the Americans and anyone else willing to help, Dominika fights for her own freedom. But of course, that’s ultimately something she’ll have to gain herself — and that won’t be easy under Russia’s gaze.
The chilly, evocative first half of Red Sparrow is fierce and fraught in its frigid execution. Francis Lawrence is commanding and captivating during these opening moments, unafraid to take things slow and uncompromising. Aided by Jennifer Lawrence’s assurance and steely confidence, Red Sparrow is fearless and convicting in the right moments. It has a cold, sophisticated nuance rarely seen in studio films such as these, and it prides itself on its tempered pacing and bruising brutality. If only it had more going for it…
It’s the second half of this passion project that gives the movie trouble. As the story gets more convoluted, either in an attempt to seem smarter than it is or as a means to keep the audience in suspense throughout, this slow-burn thriller starts to burn out, relying on sharp violence and exhaustingly monotonous dialogue exchanges to keep itself going. The former can start to feel gratuitous, notably as it involves our female protagonist, and the latter proves the movie isn’t quite as witty and cutting as it fancies itself to be. It’s quite a shame because it is competently filmed, even if the script itself isn’t always up-to-par with its style.
Red Sparrow clearly has big, thoughtful intentions. And some of them are noble —if not fully fleshed out. It’s hard to imagine how this movie would’ve played in a less heated social climate, but we live in reality, not in the supposed. It’s apparent that Jennifer Lawrence is embodying this character for more personal reasons. As someone who has been exposed and exploited against her will, in the face of the world at large, there’s good reason to believe Red Sparrow is the actress’s attempt to give the world her own point-of-view, to show them what becomes of their actions. But the clumsy storytelling in the second half, with its wavering focus, ballooning supporting characters, and growingly indulgent filmmaking style, is not quite up to snuff with what she hopes to achieve. You can’t fault the actress; she gives it all, then she somehow gives some more. It’s a raw, naked, intense, invigorating performance, the likes of which we don’t often see from someone with Jennifer Lawrence’s star power, and it’s disappointing that the movie itself doesn’t have what it takes to make something as captivating and astonishing as the work she provides here.
As a result, Red Sparrow becomes daunting and relentless, but not for the reasons it wishes to be. There’s a damn good movie waiting to be found in this messy, overwrought picture. Francis Lawrence can be a strong filmmaker, and with Jennifer Lawrence, he made arguably his best film with Hunger Games: Catching Fire. But Red Sparrow is closer to the last installment in the franchise, Mockingjay – Part 2, in that it is tedious, prolonged, meandering and unruly. It looks nice, and it’s not with firm convictions. But Francis Lawrence doesn’t rise to David Fincher’s high stature. Red Sparrow doesn’t ascend like it should.