Film Review: Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence smolders as a deceptive bird of prey in this erotic spy thriller.
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Beware of any spy asking, “Are you a patriot?” It’s an especially loaded question as posed by a secret agent trained to seduce, manipulate and/or kill enemies of the state. Jennifer Lawrence stars in Red Sparrow as just such an agent, Dominika Egorova, a patriot willing to lay down her body or her life for Mother Russia.

Reuniting with her most frequent Hunger Games helmer, Francis Lawrence (no relation), Jennifer Lawrence bares a ruthless confidence and corrupted innocence as Dominika in this seamy psychological thriller set among state-sponsored professional liars in the business of stealing secrets. However, the film evinces little interest in exactly which secrets are being kept, sold or traded.

The battle lines are clearly drawn between perennial adversaries, the Russians and the Americans, and their stealthy moles hidden on either side, but what intelligence they’re after is not as pressing a concern as their seedier methods of espionage: sex, coercion, torture. Based on the Edgar Award-winning 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow tracks Dominika’s transformation from damaged prima ballerina into a lethal Russian spy honed for sexual manipulation.

Rather than focus on the gadgets or fight skills she acquires, the film marks the depths of her exploitation as a code-named Sparrow for her government’s foreign intelligence service. Under the supervision of the agency’s deputy director, her leering uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), Dominika struggles to retain some shred of independence as she operates in Moscow and Budapest to uncover the identity of a Russian double agent. She uses lust as much as her wits in order to extract information from undercover CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and to enact a plan to free herself from this sordid web of spies.

The layered plotting and emotionally complex characterizations—from Lawrence’s icy turn as the morally conflicted agent to Charlotte Rampling’s brief but biting appearance as the steely Matron who oversees Sparrow training—set a tone closer to film noir than 007, despite the decidedly 21st-century graphic sex and violence. Red Sparrow isn’t a high-flying, high-body-count affair, but the deadly gun battles and knife fights tend to be gruesome, just as the scenes of seduction and sexual degradation also pull no punches. The serpentine narrative occasionally feels farfetched, but no more so than scandalous U.S.-Russia relations reported daily in the news.

In fact, the movie conveys a peculiar sense of melancholy in evoking some of the real-life lengths to which governments might go to achieve the slightest edge in a seemingly never-ending quest to stay one data dump ahead of the curve. Spy masters Ivan and the Matron and their bosses would break the sons and daughters, or in this case, nieces, of the republic in the name of God and country. The Sparrows, no less than army snipers, have to jettison some part of their humanity to be ready to take out a target on command, and with no hesitation.

A slightly less feral La Femme Nikita, Dominika stalks a dark path, and neither the movie nor its star shy away from uncomfortable scenes of the character’s descent from artist to antihero. Yet, even amidst the moral ugliness, director Lawrence maintains a glamorous Hollywood sheen for the globetrotting affair, with the tony cast elegantly costumed on sets art-directed in warm shades of amber and red, cut with flashes of snowy white.

The big-budget artifice stays readily apparent, even while the well-paced suspense and potent chemistry between Lawrence and Edgerton, and especially between Lawrence’s sly Dominika and Schoenaerts’ creepy uncle Ivan, lure the viewer into overlooking the obvious wigs and odd accents to experience the sad, sexy, brutal facts of secret-agent life. Everyone is after something and no one can be trusted. It’s a dirty business, but somebody’s got to do it.

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