Violently Repugnant Sparrow a Viscously Captivating Espionage Thriller
After suffering a career-ending injury, Bolshoi prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is determined to find a way to ensure she and her sick mother Nina (Joely Richardson) continue to live in their large apartment and the pair’s medical bills continue to be paid. To that end, at the urging of her uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking government official, Dominika agrees to go out with a shady Russian businessman who wants to add her to his large stable of mistresses. But this is all a ruse, an excuse to get this duplicitous millionaire in a room away from his security guards, what happens after the former ballerina is able to achieve this changing the course of her life in ways she never could have anticipated.
Given the choice by her uncle to either be killed for having seen more than she should have or be sent to a special academy for spies who specialize in sexual manipulation, with the understanding that her mother will continue to receive medical care Dominika quickly acquiesces to her uncle’s suggestions. Within four months she proves herself to be quite adept to adapting to all that is asked of her while at the same time maintaining a level of resolve and self-respect that keeps her from becoming nothing more than a mindless government surveillance drone. She does so well, Vanya decides to test Dominika and see just how far her skills have progressed, sending her to seduce CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in hopes he’ll inadvertently reveal the identity of an American mole inside the Russian government during a moment of romantic candor.
Based on the novel by former CIA analyst Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow is an old school spy vs. spy throwback that takes itself very, very seriously. Working from a layered, intricately comprehensive script by Justin Haythe (Snitch), director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I Am Legend) doesn’t pull any punches as far as the grotesque abhorrence of psychological and physical manipulation is concerned. He treats the material with total solemnity, showcasing every bone break, knife wound and bullet to the head with a tenacious ruthlessness that’s purposefully discombobulating.
This conceit tends to work. The film has an exceedingly hard edge, one that recalls ‘70s thrillers like The Day of the Jackal, The Destructors, The Parallax View and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it’s clear that Lawrence revels in taking no prisoners as he steers this story towards its chilling conclusion. But the violence almost always feels part of the story, events that help shape the characters thus allowing for additional insight into why many of these shady, duplicitous figures end up making the decisions that they do. It’s very methodical, each piece of the narrative building upon the next in a manner that is exacting yet rarely feels self-indulgent or superfluous, the director creating an insidious aura of melancholic repugnance that’s chilling.
As completely as I responded to the material overall, there were still moments where I couldn’t help but feel as if Lawrence was going a step or two further than necessary. There is an act of brutality that transpires between Dominika and the businessman that plays like some variation of a scene found in grindhouse exploitation thrillers like The Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave, and while the scene isn’t played for thrills, isn’t designed to titillate, it’s still so extreme in its vile cruelty I was almost angry at the director for including it. I didn’t like the moment, not at all, and while that might seem a little hypocritical considering my fondness for retro B-grade horror that tends to revel in scenes similar to this one, it’s the nature in which Lawrence chooses to depict this event that sickened me, images here so senselessly loathsome I’m not going to be shaking them anytime soon.
Yet I find that Red Sparrow continues to grow on me the further I get away from my initial viewing. Haythe’s screenplay does a fine job of fleshing Dominika out, giving her layers of depth and nuance that only grow in power and determination as events evolve. I loved the way in which she and Vanya interact, the nature of their relationship overflowing in destructive venom that only gets more potent the longer and more often they continue to work together. The writer manages to maintain the intelligent convolutions that helped make Matthews’s novel a bestseller, the ways in which the various twists and turns ultimately take shape undeniably compelling.
As far as the acting goes, this is a showcase for Jennifer Lawrence and Matthias Schoenaerts, both of whom are exceptional, everyone else, including a reasonably intense Edgerton, forced to make do with whatever emotional scraps might have been left dangling for them to make use of. Recent Academy Award nominee Charlotte Rampling is particularly underutilized, and it’s hard not to imagine in the television miniseries version of this story her hard-edged matron of the sexual spy school would have had a heck of a lot more to do. Mary-Louise Parker, on the other hand, appears to be having a grand time vamping it up as an American who inadvertently crosses Dominika’s path, and while her time in the story is decidedly brief that doesn’t make it any less memorable.
Unsurprisingly, much like many of Lawrence’s previous films, notably Constantine and Water for Elephants, this thriller proves to be an immaculately designed visual marvel featuring crack production design from Maria Djurkovic (The Imitation Game) and superlative editing from Alan Edward Bell (The Dark Tower), while Jo Willems’s (30 Days of Night) impressively visceral cinematography is intoxicating in its elegantly observational refinement. James Newton Howard’s (Detroit, Nightcrawler) score is also superb, his music propelling things forward down an increasingly dark and twisted path that Dominika must successfully navigate if she’s going to make it to the end alive.
I have plenty of reservations as far as it pertains to Red Sparrow, not the least of which being that scene of sexual desecration and blood-splattered mental abuse that closes out the first act and helps send the former ballerina on a one-way path to a place often referred to as “whore school” by a number of the secondary characters. There’s also a massive leap of faith that needs to happen in order to accept that Dominika could become such a crack agent with such minuscule training (four months isn’t exactly a lot of time), ballet and espionage not exactly two professions that normally walk happily hand-in-hand.
But I still can’t shake this movie. Jennifer Lawrence’s focused, nakedly raw performance is sensational, and I love that Haythe has constructed his narrative in a manner where all the clues are right there to be dissected and discussed assuming the viewer is observant enough to make note of them. Red Sparrow likely won’t jump start a new franchise, the ugly, harshly repugnant nature of things not going to sit well with a great many members of the audience, yet I still find I liked it all the same. This is a thriller I’ll be thinking about for some time to come, and I have this sneaking suspicion I’m going to be taking a second look at it sooner rather than later.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)