By Jack Dignan
There’s a good film somewhere in Red Sparrow. Somewhere, hidden within, rests a dark and disturbed thriller that effectively pushes boundaries while keeping you on the edge of your seat. Perhaps it’s found inside the pages of the book, written by Jason Matthews and further expanded upon in two subsequent sequels. But wherever it is, it struggles to find life in its big screen movie adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence. The good film, unfortunately, remains to be seen.
We follow the story of a Russian ballerina named Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), whose life of dance was cut short after an unfortunate on-stage accident that resulted in a career ending injury. Now unemployed, Dominika struggles to maintain financial stability and support her mother. That’s when her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) comes into the picture, offering her a unique job offer. Her mission, should she choose to accept it, is to become a Sparrow; essentially a Russian intelligence operative trained to use mental and sexual manipulation to achieve a desired goal.
Things are kicked right into action with an intoxicating cross-narrative opening, introducing both Dominika and the man who will go on to prove a major role, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). Its slow build is riveting and frightening, setting up the plot in a major way. The entire first act is dark, sexual and violent, and I spent a majority of it thinking to myself “I’m really enjoying this, but I totally get why people hate it,” and it’s true. Red Sparrow is certainly not for everyone. The violence is extreme and the more provocative subject matter will no-doubt confront a lot of audience members. But that’s not why I disliked this movie. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons that I liked the elements I did.
The world within Red Sparrow plays out like a slap to the face. It’s shocking and gritty, telling a fascinating story while maintaining a constant sense of intrigue. Or at least it did for a while. What follows a prolonged training and introduction is the biggest bait and switch in recent cinema, and it leads to the film’s biggest issues. This is not the film you’re going to be expecting. Screenwriter Justin Haythe (A Cure For Wellness) spends so much time establishing this confronting and sexualized world where the character’s bodies don’t belong to them, only to not use any of what’s set up. We get a run of the mill basic spy premise, with Dominika forced to establish contact with Nash in order to uncover a double agent hidden within the Russian agency.
What this leads to is an absolute narrative derailing. Sure, the violence retains its intense nature throughout, but it renders all the sexual aspects and exploitative elements of the plot useless. They become forced into the first act for the sake of being in the film. So after being subjugated to watching numerous instances of rape and sexual abuse, the whole thing becomes utterly irrelevant, never adding anything to any of the character’s arcs. And yeah, I suppose it does help build the hatred stirring within Dominika, but there are other ways to display this. Ways that actually add to the plot. The only thing their sexual training leads to is a brief, unneeded encounter at a bar that adds literally nothing to the story.
But even when looking at what this film does have to offer, it’s all so bland and uninteresting. Francis Lawrence’s bleak direction may have suited some of his previous films, but with Red Sparrow it just feels drab. Cinematographer Jo Willems struggles to find an interesting visual style. It’s all so point and shoot. There are no thrills, little shocks and all the primary plot elements are severely under-explained. They skim past so much of the important information, to the point where you’ll forget it moments after hearing it, left in the dark to wonder aimlessly in an attempt to catch up with where things are. The underdeveloped characters lose their motivations as it all becomes muddled in a plot that doesn’t know what to do with them.
The acting is certainly credible, but their performances aren’t enough to save such boring characters. Red Sparrows tries to be all complex and smart, but it struggles, falling short and failing miserably. This is not a good film. But it comes so close to being one. It’s quite the shame, but what does need to be appreciated are Jennifer Lawrence’s recent career choices. Between this and mother!, it goes to show her dedication to doing something different, and while they haven’t been working for everyone, I implore her to keep it up.
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