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Film Review – Red Sparrow (2018)

Spy thrillers don’t get much more brutal than Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow.  Filled with sex and torture that will rank among some of the most uncomfortable moments in a movie theater this year, Red Sparrow is a good example of a film that makes you ask, “was all of this necessary?”  The following review will be spoiler free.

Red Sparrow

Synopsis

Directed By: Francis Lawrence

Written By: Justin Haythe

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, and Jeremy Irons

As a witness to a high-profile killing, former ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is faced with a choice: die, or become a Sparrow.  Naturally, she reluctantly chooses the latter and her high-ranking uncle (Schoenaerts) sends her to Sparrow School for training.  Sparrows are bred to use their sexuality in any means necessary to get crucial information from targets while learning to remove a sense of morality from it all.

Egorova’s first mission gets her entangled with a C.I.A. agent (Edgerton) which later threatens the security of both Mother Russia and the United States.

Background

Based on the 2013 novel of the same name, Red Sparrow has been making headlines since its release a few weeks ago at the Newseum in Washington D.C.

The film has already garnered an R-rating in the states and the general equivalent in many other countries around the world for its depiction of rape, nudity, and violence.  But, in this day and age, those elements are somewhat standard in film to an extent.  The real discussion that has everyone talking is the evolution of Jennifer Lawrence.

Recall her cutesy trip at the 2013 Oscars and the equally endearing creation of the nickname “JLaw.”  A noticeable shift in her public temperament has taken place, and everyone is starting to take note.  Becoming increasingly guarded and antagonistic with the media, the public opinion on the talented actress has certainly declined to some degree.  This website isn’t a place to discuss the gossip that circulates Hollywood, but if you ask me, Lawrence’s reported break from acting (which she has since debunked) might actually do her some good with the constant barrage of criticism that she now endures.

red sparrow

image via IndieWire

Great Production Design and Solid Direction Leads Red Sparrow

Director Francis Lawrence, cinematographer Jo Willems, and production designer Maria Djurkovic come away as the winners of Red Sparrow.

While there are noticeable issues with the script (more on that below), Francis Lawrence clearly worked well with his actors to develop a strong sense of trust.  Francis Lawrence and Jennifer Lawrence have strong chemistry from working on three of the Hunger Games films together (Catching Fire and Mockingjay Part 1 and 2) — and that trust was necessary for Red Sparrow‘s racy elements.  There are a few moments in Red Sparrow where JLaw is incredibly vulnerable — either by stripping nude or handling abuse — where a strong set dynamic was necessary.  The Lawrences are clearing on the same page, and we as the audience are better for it.

Filmed in various locations in Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria among other places, Red Sparrow benefits mightily from real shots of Eastern European architecture that adds an aura of legitimacy to the entire production.  Lavish costumes and great imagery make Red Sparrow pleasing to the eye even when people are slitting throats.  You feel the stark gravity of the situation, even if the final product may underwhelm.

red sparrow

image via 20th Century Fox

Red Sparrow Feels Like Multiple Films Crammed into One

What has most people buzzing about Red Sparrow is its use of sexuality in a “constant struggle for power.”  While I can attest that this film certainly isn’t for children in that regard, Red Sparrow doesn’t deliver on what it promises.

The setup begins with Sparrow School and Lawrence’s character learning to manipulate by understanding what people desire most.  This is certainly a fascinating setup for a movie, but the plot quickly disregards these elements for a standard spy thriller once Joel Edgerton becomes involved.  Sexuality is responsible for the most visceral moments in Red Sparrowmaking it even more frustrating when you begin to realize that there’s no payoff to that element of the story.  After her entanglement with the C.I.A. Lawrence’s Egorova resorts to standard spy tactics that we’ve all seen countless times before.  With no purpose to its sexual nature, Red Sparrow becomes gratuitous — and even exploitative.

These elements turn into fluff with no legitimate ties to the plot of the story.  Shock value works well when used properly, but Red Sparrow’s use of it feels incredibly cheap.  The blending of psychological manipulation and grisly spy exploits never quite mixes together.  The result is a very uneven narrative that doesn’t have the catharsis that it should.

red sparrow

image via Nothing But Geek

An Absurdly Self-Serious Tone Will Lead to a Generic Label

After the C.I.A. gets involved, Red Sparrow becomes fairly standard, turning into a weaving plot full of double crosses that will become obvious to those that are regulars with the genre.

That fact is true of most spy thrillers, but the good ones add a noticeable change to the formula from a stylistic perspective.  Red Sparrow is so concerned with keeping its unbelievably self-serious tone that it never accomplishes this objective.  This movie is a punishing experience.  From its 140-minute runtime to its over-the-top, grisly violence, the entire endeavor just feels exhausting.  You’re left with a movie that does nothing to distract from its flaws, making them more apparent with every nondescript spy discussion of “the asset” or “the mole” that are as bland as white bread.

Red Sparrow leaves a limited reward for sticking with it for so long.  By the end, you’ll become numb to the torture and blood as you begin to pick out each flaw in the movie.  For a film that does its best to up the ante at every turn, it lacks a certain personality that would have made the story worthwhile.  Every frame looks beautiful, but the movie itself is vapid and hollow — lacking heart and chemistry between its actors which makes everything feel cold and distant.

Side note: does anyone else get annoyed when characters talk in English in a foreign country and would have no reason to speak in anything but their native tongue except for the fact that they’re in a movie aimed towards an English-speaking audience, or is it just me?

red sparrow

image via Cleveland Scene

Final Thoughts

Unnecessarily long and unnecessarily gratuitous, Red Sparrow loses sight of its more fascinating and titillating elements for a standard spy thriller in its second half.  There’s certainly a lot to admire about the general aesthetic and look of Red Sparrow, but the rest of its elements are fairly nondescript, ultimately becoming a rather tame movie that peppers in some over-the-top violence.

Red Sparrow isn’t the worst thing you’ll see this month (or even this week), but its uneven structure squanders solid performances and what could have been a devilishly harrowing movie experience.

Grade: C+

red sparrow

image via NPR


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Nick Kush

A current young professional, Nick founded MovieBabble in October of 2016 in order to provide insightful film analysis that is meant to educate and entertain. Nick is also a member of the Internet Film Critics Society. You can follow Nick at the official MovieBabble Twitter account @MovieBabble_

16 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    hi moviebabble. it’s been a while. i like your website expansion. i completely agree with your rating. i watched it a while back and just getting around to posting my own review. anyway, hope all is well in your world.

    • Nick Kush says:

      I’m glad we agree 😁 I’ll certainly be on the look out for it! Hope everything is great for you too!

  2. Even though the review is C+ – It is a well balanced and worthy critique. So much so, I will watch the film – Thanks for an excellent article – Ain

    • Nick Kush says:

      Glad to help! The decision is always up to you in the end. It only matters what you like, I’m just here to help!

  3. spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the film.

    I just saw Red Sparrow last night as an early birthday present from my parents. I knew ahead of time that it was going to be a dark movie with explicit sexual scenes, but I thought there would be more substance to it.

    A lot of the scenes were very “shock factor” like and there wasn’t enough action in it. For me, it’s not a real spy movie unless there is a chase scene in it.

    I didn’t see much chemistry between Lawrence and Edgerton. They had a very awkward sex scene, or more like she had sex with him and he just kind of sat there. It just seemed odd and unnatural. I thought that him finding out that she was a sparrow so fast kind of ruined it as well.

    Yes, he’s with the CIA and very good at his job, but it was all so quick. I would have liked there to be more mystery between them and see her use her seduction more. All she really did was parade in front of him in a swimsuit which yes did catch his attention, but I wanted to see them spend more time together before he found out she was a sparrow.

    The whole “whore” school thing was bizarre as well. I understand that they are teaching them how to get information, but there is more too it than just sex.

    I get that the other recruits learned how to fight beforehand, but where did Dominika learn how to fight?

    Did her uncle teach her as a young girl? In the scene where she is almost raped for the second time, she rips off the shower knob and clobbers the guy. And he just goes down just like that.

    But, then later on when the assassin guy starts torturing the Nate she only hits the assassin once in the back and goes to untie Nate. Why is it that when she beats up on the other people that she hit them multiple times, but then this guy she just hits him in the back once?

    As for the accent and language thing, I didn’t mind that they were speaking in English, but I did notice Lawrence slipping up a few times in the film which kind of took me out of it and made it hard at times to distinguish between her and her character.

  4. “[D]oes anyone else get annoyed when characters talk in English in a foreign country and would have no reason to speak in anything but their native tongue except for the fact that they’re in a movie aimed towards an English-speaking audience, or is it just me?” Oh yes, very much so, Nick! You are not alone, my dear! 🙂 I also agree with camerashootshot’s comments regarding women being objectified. It’s sickening and depressing.

  5. I am finding myself sick and very tired of movies claiming female empowerment when all we have is yet another film depicting women bodies unnecessarily naked and brutalized. The fact that this is considered a role of female empowerment just shows how FAR women have to go in reclaiming our bodies–bodies that have been objectified and commodified for the male gaze. In this film, it goes beyond the normal male gaze.

    • Nick Kush says:

      As I mentioned in the review, I feel like it would have felt less exploitive if the film followed through with that idea throughout the movie, but the film completely disregarded it which made me feel like they showed nudity for the sake of having nudity without a having an impact on the narrative

      • I agree. And I do not understand why the one scene in which their was actually consentual sex was skipped over, yet the more brutal sex scenes were lingered on. I think sex is healthy and nudity is nothing to shy away from. However, let’s portray women enjoying sex, rather than being brutalized all the time. I see this issue as violent porn becomes the norm, and this norm is seeping into pop culture. As a woman, this trend scares me.

      • Nick Kush says:

        Couldn’t have said it better myself!

  6. flash7film says:

    I was wondering how good Red Sparrow was, and your review really gave me some insight. And by the way, I agree with the dislike of English speaking in a foreign country! If they’re In Russia, Egypt, or Japan, the movie would be more authentic if they just spoke the native tongue of the country (and what also bothers me is when a movie is set in a country that’s not England, like Germany or France, yet they have British accents). But anyways, interesting post and great points!

  7. Nick Kush says:

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