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Review: Red Sparrow (2018)

Red Sparrow (2018)

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Premise: Based on the novel by Jason Matthews. A ballerina (Jennifer Lawrence) is promised heath care for her sick mother in exchange for joining the Russian intelligence service. She is assigned to discover the identity of a double agent who is cooperating with Americans.

What Works: Red Sparrow distinguishes itself among spy thrillers with its psychological complexity. This is a movie about seduction and how people can be manipulated through their desires. That plays out throughout the story with characters leading each other on and there is a great deal of ambiguity as to everyone’s intentions. Red Sparrow is especially interesting because of its gender politics; Jennifer Lawrence’s character must cater to men’s desires in order to survive but Lawrence and the filmmakers are always aware of her inner life. The way she endures some advances and resists others makes for a complicated portrait of sexual conflict. This dovetails into the film’s other theme, which is the tension between the individual and the state. Red Sparrow takes place in a contemporary Russia that isn’t all that different from the Soviet Union; the needs of the individual are always subordinate to the needs of the state. Combined with the film’s gender politics, Red Sparrow is a provocative portrait of a woman surviving in a man’s world.

What Doesn’t: Red Sparrow is thoughtful, at least in regards to its gender politics, but it isn’t a whole lot of fun to watch. In fact, Red Sparrow is frequently unpleasant. There are a number of scenes of sexual violence and even the consensual moments are not especially erotic. This seems deliberate on the filmmakers’ part; the movie is about predatory behavior in the context of a spy thriller. But Red Sparrow’s unpleasantness undermines its ability to entertain. As a spy thriller, Red Sparrow isn’t all that innovative or surprising. The plot is fairly straightforward. A mole in the Russian intelligence service is leaking information to the United States and Jennifer Lawrence’s character must establish a relationship with a CIA operative (Joel Edgerton) and discover the mole’s identity. At its core, this is the premise of a lot of spy movies from Mission: Impossible to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Red Sparrow doesn’t bring anything new to it. The film lacks tension and suffers from forced plot twists. Jennifer Lawrence’s character agrees to enter the Sparrow program to get medical treatment for her mother, but the parent never seems all that sick and little is invested in the mother-daughter relationship. The mother is more of a plot contrivance than a character. Her existence is the only thing keeping Lawrence’s character from just running away and the whole matter is dropped in the end of the picture. The movie also has a strange use of Russian accents. Jennifer Lawrence and a few other actors do the inflection but others don’t. And those who do sometimes sound like Boris and Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Bottom Line: Red Sparrow has some interesting gender politics but it isn’t a particularly good spy thriller and the movie is so morose that it’s difficult to enjoy.

Episode: #689 (March 11, 2018)