Mark Reviews Movies

Red Sparrow


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Thekla Reuten, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity)

Running Time: 2:19

Release Date: 3/2/18

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 28, 2018

Red Sparrow offers the same sort of winding, twisting games of espionage and deceit to which we've become accustomed in such fare. It easily could have been familiar and routine stuff, save for the fact that it provides a genuinely provocative examination of power dynamics and the role of sex in that battle for power, as well as a protagonist whose motives and actions remain a puzzle until the final minutes of the story.

The protagonist, a woman who's coerced into becoming a spy, also could have been a giant misstep for the film, since we spend so much of the story wondering what she's doing and why she's doing it. That mystery, though, is of only secondary concern to director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe (adapting the book by Jason Matthews).

The primary concern is to watch Jennifer Lawrence's Dominika Egorova as she lies, manipulates, and maneuvers her way through the complex internal and international politics of a Russian underworld where the Cold War never really ended. We might not know why she does what she does, whether she's telling the truth or lying at any specific moment, or if she's capable of feeling anything beyond a stoic devotion to her work. That's the mystery of the character. What makes the film engaging is that we can always see Dominkia's mind at work, whether it's part of some unknown, elaborate plan or simply improvising some new deception on the fly, hoping that it'll stick.

It helps that Lawrence, beneath her Russian dialect, conveys a lot about this character's transformation from a beloved prima ballerina into an unwilling participant in espionage, even as she convinces us of the character's capacity to be underhanded, quick-witted, and ruthless in her work. A grisly leg injury on stage has ruined Dominika's career, and our first glimpse of her capabilities arrives when she learns that her understudy, who's having an affair with Dominika's dance partner, had orchestrated the "accident." Dominika nearly beats the lovers to death with her cane. Her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a higher-up in Russia's intelligence community, offers his niece an opportunity to escape the consequences by doing a favor in service of the nation.

This "favor" is a political assassination, in which the unknowing Dominika lures the man into isolation. That the target was killed in the act of raping Dominika is unimportant to Vanya or anyone else in the intelligence organization. She was merely a pawn, and now that her job is complete, she is only a witness. Her uncle offers her a second option to death: Join the "Sparrow School," and become a spy. Without much of a choice, she agrees, if only to help give her ailing mother (played by Joely Richardson) some financial stability.

The school, given only a number and assigning its students false names, is a place where young, attractive men and women learn the ways of deceitful seduction. Like all people, their targets, the matron (Charlotte Rampling) explains, are psychological puzzles. In order to gain influence or information on them, a Sparrow must pretend to be the missing piece—the one thing that the target desires more than anything else.

The school's curriculum is an emotionless, uncaring, and often cruel destruction of the future Sparrows' senses of morality, decency, and identity. In this world, there are no rules for ethics or justice—only the sole rule that a student is the property of the state, to be done with as the state needs or wants. When a fellow student attempts to rape Dominika, she defends herself and instantly becomes the "assailant" in the picture. After all, she could have killed or severely injured an asset of the state. A particularly pitiless scene follows, as the matron gives the "wronged" student an opportunity to finish his attempt in front of the class. Dominika turns the situation by taking control, leaving him impotent in at least two senses of the word.

The plot here involves a mole within the Russian government (because, of course, it does) and the mole's American contact, a CIA agent named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). Dominika is assigned to get close to Nate, who's on temporary leave in Budapest, and uncover the mole's identity. If this plot sounds routine, it mostly is, but the framing of that plot always keeps two central ideas in mind: sex and power. It's about the often unsettling interplay of those two things, as well as an examination of them on their terms within the context of the film's story.

It's also a seemingly reasonable, if—we hope against hope—fictional, suggestion of the current political happenings between the United States and Russia. Here, there's an extended sequence tracking the blackmail of U.S. Congressman's assistant (played, in an all-too brief but memorable appearance, by Mary-Louise Parker, whose character treats the entire episode with unexpected levity—the acceptance of someone who knows she has been caught). It's a game of obtaining dirt (in this case, an affair with another Russian spy) and using it as leverage for secrets of national security.

It feels timely, given what we know and don't know (but reasonably suspect) about real-world Russian interference in American politics and democratic institutions, but even those occasional diversions are always presented in the pursuit of examining how these characters wield power—through sex or, in a couple of tough and extended scenes involving torture, violence. At the heart of Red Sparrow is a character who, at first, seems to possess no such power and, by the end, has seemingly unlimited power to decide the fate of Russia and its place in the world. Watching her gain it and trying to figure out how she's going to use it provide a troubling but fascinating puzzle.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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