Red Sparrow is going to be an interesting film when it comes to audience response. The marketing has sold it as an action thriller and many fans have viewed it as an imitation Black Widow movie. Red Sparrow is neither of those things.
In fact, it might be one of the most difficult wide-release films in a while.
The Black Widow comparison has been brought up because of what people know about the plot. Talented ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is injured and left with no way to support herself and her ailing mother, Nina (Joely Richardson). She winds up getting entangled in the shady world of Russian intelligence after she is coerced into a mission by her uncle, Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts). Eventually, she is forced to become a student at Sparrow School, a dehumanizing academy that turns its students into agents that specialize in using their bodies to extract what they need out of their targets.
It’s a story that certainly lends itself to espionage suspense and tense thrills, but Red Sparrow isn’t interested in these kinds of popcorn sentiments. This is a movie that uses its plot to examine how women are forced to utilize their sexuality in order to overcome a world in which men abuse and discard them. That subject matter is compelling and it’s clear that Red Sparrow is aiming to confront this concept in a brutal and necessary way.
However, there are multiple problems that arise with Red Sparrow‘s approach to this. One is that the film is much more plot-focused than character driven. The story continues to move without taking much time to really sit with Dominika and let us figure out who she is and why she makes certain decisions beyond very clichéd and one-note reasons. This keeps our main character at a chilly distance. Yes, the horrible things that happen to Dominika evoke sympathy but don’t connect in an empathic way.
Another big issue is the cognitive dissonance of the film’s direction in relation to its on-screen content. Director Francis Lawrence previously helmed the last three Hunger Games films and he brings the same blockbuster polish to Red Sparrow. That means the movie looks gangbusters but that slick aesthetic contrasts with the outright ugly things we see Dominika get repeatedly subjected to.
Could this be an intentional decision? Possibly. Juxtaposing an opulent style with disturbing content can certainly work — Hannibal is an excellent example of this — but there has to be a sense of self-awareness to pull this off. Red Sparrow is a great-looking film but it doesn’t feel like it’s knowingly trying to make its aesthetic part of the film’s themes. It only looks good because it’s a sizable production.
In fact, the film would probably benefit from looking more down and dirty. Dominika is tortured and assaulted throughout the film but the flawless direction takes away from the harshness of these moments. If Lawrence had made the film look as unsettling as its content, it would’ve driven the point home in a stronger fashion.
Problems Are Also Pros
Even with all of this criticism, there are elements to these issues that still work. While the movie might value plot over character, it’s hard to say that the plot isn’t a tight and propulsive one. The story never becomes convoluted or confusing and that’s very commendable. And Jennifer Lawrence is dependably powerful with her performance. That’s doubly impressive considering how much she’s put through over the course of the film.
And even though the movie’s direction doesn’t mirror the story’s viciousness, it’s still a fantastic film on a visual scale. Lawrence captures an aura of frigid oppression that makes perfect sense for the Russian setting.
Heck, the immense lack of action and typical genre spectacle is another example of a blessing and a curse. Yes, it makes the movie feel less eventful but it also reinforces how this is a very, VERY adult story being told. Red Sparrow has more in common with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than it does something like Atomic Blonde. Depending on which of those films is more your cup of tea, you’ll start to figure out if Red Sparrow is your kind of flick.
Is Red Sparrow Good?
Gosh, this is tough. It’s a rough experience due to the awful treatment that Dominika endures, but the movie is cognizant of that on a thematic level. And without spoiling anything, it’s attempting to showcase someone overcoming horrific adversity. The film looks good, has a strong lead performance, and it never becomes boring. But, it also lacks a lot of what audiences will probably want out of a movie like this.
If you decide to see Red Sparrow, go in with the knowledge that this isn’t aiming to be a pleasant experience. And that’s fine! Not all movies should be pleasant. However, if Red Sparrow had stronger character work and a conceptual approach that emphasized the cruelty of the tale, it could have been something truly powerful. As it stands, it’s a solid film that feels like the foundation for something greater.