One downside of all reasonable people finally agreeing that women deserve to be treated like human beings is the exploitation of “feminism” to sell all manner of useless crap that either have nothing to do with leaning in (pens, shoes, cereal) or will probably hurt women in the long run (guns). Falling thankfully much closer to the former is Red Sparrow, a sexy-spy drama that feels too often like a Skinemax flick wrapped in ersatz empowerment. Destroy the patriarchy, it declares, while ogling this naked body of a woman who’s just had her head bashed in.
To be fair, at least one woman has found power and self-reclamation through the film. Star Jennifer Lawrence has explained that Red Sparrow’s sex scenes—which include depictions of rape and bodily humiliation—allowed her to feel like she was “getting something back that had been taken from” her when her phone was hacked in 2014 and her private photos were subsequently leaked online. That Lawrence teamed up once more with director Francis Lawrence, who helmed the three Hunger Games sequels but otherwise has no relation, probably added to the actress’s sense of trust and confidence on set. But that doesn’t mean that the drama itself is anything more than sleazy, punishing, and all around crummy. After the umpteenth porn-foreplay scenario played out in “whore school” (an actual phrase from the script), I wondered aloud, “How is this a real movie?”
In fact, my mind kept flitting to a handful of TV shows during the ponderous 140-minute run time. Like Archer, the Russia-set Red Sparrow takes place in an alternate dimension where it’s simultaneously 1968 and 2018, but it wholly lacks the animated series’ playful anachronism. And because its makers never met a Soviet stereotype they didn’t love and decide to immediately shoehorn into the screenplay, Lawrence’s Dominika is a prima ballerina whose uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking intelligence official, coerces her into espionage. Charlotte Rampling kills time as a matron in the aforementioned “whore school,” teaching her charges how to trick their bodies into boning mode—a curriculum that The Americans managed to cover with more emotional depth in a 10-second montage.
Here, those lessons drag on and on, with students of both genders ordered to sexually service pedophiles, rapists, and each other. As if in a cruel joke, those degrading assignments are actually thoroughly irrelevant to Dominika’s eventual mission: to get close to CIA operative Nate (Joel Edgerton) and discover the identity of his source inside the SVR (a successor to the KGB). Technically a nepotistic flunky, Dominika tries her best to uncover the mole while covertly signaling to Nate that she might be up for some double-crossing herself.
Dominika’s final fate is genuinely surprising, but there’s little joy getting there, other than a few scenes featuring an amusingly squirrelly Mary-Louise Parker (playing an American bureaucrat selling secrets to Russia). Red Sparrow mostly leers at Dominika as she wields her feminine wiles in skimpy skirts and impractical, gaping-at-the-chest swimsuits, then throws in a few torture scenes seemingly designed to one-up Game of Thrones’ outlandish violence. An extended sequence involving flaying—yes, flaying—churns the stomach, then, gruelingly, keeps on going. Don’t expect any of the Cold War chic of last year’s Atomic Blonde either. As if the shoddy, occasionally British-sounding Soviet accents weren’t enough of a red flag, the Russian characters are so damn extra all the time that if they were real people, Bravo would’ve built a reality franchise around them already.
Whatever investment in the plot the film wrings from the audience comes from the fact that Dominika is stuck between two bad options: working for the monsters who turned her into their tool or defecting to America and possibly severing ties with her ailing mother (Joely Richardson). The twisty path she chooses allows her to wrest back control of her life, including her sexual agency, but the camera is nowhere near as interested in her journey as it is in her body. Lawrence, too, is unexpectedly inscrutable, her distracting, Berlin Wall–esque bangs separating us from the ability to discern her facial expressions. Her cursory Russian inflections recall her disastrous Long Island drawl in American Hustle, and indeed she gives her worst performance since her (admittedly Oscar-nominated) turn in that David O. Russell drama.
In some circles, I suppose, a woman starring in a film as vicious, soulless, and off the mark as this one counts as progress, in the same way that a marker of true equality might be if there were as many female serial killers as male ones. Feminist cinephilia has always been a complicated proposition, but it should surely demand better than this blunder.