Director Francis Lawrence’s agreeably trashy cloak-and-dagger potboiler Red Sparrow feels like a throwback in several ways. Most conspicuously, it takes many of its unabashedly sleazy cues from the erotically charged dramas and thrillers that were a part of Hungarian-American screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ brand in the 1990s – particularly his brief, prolific glut of features from Basic Instinct (1992) through Jade (1995). Meanwhile, Lawrence’s film is so vehement in its depiction of Russian intelligence agents as figures of pitch-black malice and fanatical nationalism, it feels more like a feature produced (and set) in 1982 rather than 2018. At the same time, Red Sparrow has few of the hallmarks one associates with the glossier, big-budget espionage thrillers of the past three decades or so. There are no fantastical secret-agent gadgets and – except for one singularly brutal and bloody incident – barely any action scenes. Lawrence’s feature is closer to John le Carré than Ian Fleming: a twisty drama where the plot is powered by observation, manipulation, and deception rather than speed-boat chases and the like. (In fact, the film is based on the 2014 debut novel from former CIA agent Jason Matthews.)
This unusual combination of attributes makes Red Sparrow a faintly uncanny experience, one heightened by star Jennifer Lawrence’s shaky Russian accent and the presence of overqualified actors – including Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hands, and Jeremy Irons – in glorified bit roles. It’s a film that takes place in a cinematic reality that is at once ridiculous and grounded, a glamorous, comic-book conception of international espionage that unexpectedly revels in the grubby, often dreary procedural details of real-world intelligence work. It is, if nothing else, an exceedingly novel slice of pop entertainment: a sordid spy story for those who relish the escapist titillation of sex, lies, and digital video, but find the genre’s typical dependence on martial arts and explosions wearying.
At the center of this tale is Dominika Ergorova (Lawrence), prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet and niece to Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking official in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR. When a debilitating leg injury derails Dominika’s dancing career, she fears that her usefulness to the state – and the financial support that she and her disabled mother (Joely Richardson) rely on – will come to an end. However, Uncle Vanya quickly swoops in and presents the hobbled ballerina with an alternate path: training at the FSB’s “Sparrow School,” where the most unconventional weapons in Russia’s international intelligence arsenal are produced.
The young women (and some men) tapped to become Sparrows are schooled in a few fundamental fieldcraft skills, including surveillance and lock-picking, but their primary mission is of a sexual nature. In short, they are trained to be the state’s whores, sent out into the world to manipulate Mother Russia’s enemies and allies with the currency of desire. Under the tutelage of the school’s nameless Matron (Rampling), Dominika learns to discern the true, hidden needs of her targets, and to modify her seduction strategy accordingly. Not incidentally, the curriculum is also designed to break the Sparrows emotionally, forcing them to sublimate everything – from their personal proclivities to their physical autonomy – in the service of the state. (Fair warning to sexual-assault survivors: Red Sparrow features two rape scenes, both aggravated by the explicit, appalling message that the victim is obliged to “take one for the team.”)
Red Sparrow is at its most deliriously ludicrous in these early Sparrow School sequences, as the seedy world into which Dominika tumbles often feels like a baroque hybrid of a Tom Clancy novel, a Garth Ennis comic, and John Wick’s hyper-real assassin-verse. Justin Haythe’s screenplay is forthright about the monumentally twisted nature of the Sparrow School’s abusive methods, but director Lawrence also excitably depicts every nauseating jot of the carnal indignities forced on the students. The film clearly wants to have its cake and eat it too. It leers as its lead actress sits naked and spread-eagle in front of her fellow Sparrows-in-training, for example, but it also sustains a dizzying awareness that the moment constitutes a wily assertion of power on Dominika’s part. By offering herself up bluntly and publicly to a would-be rapist, she becomes the dominant figure, driving her victory home by mercilessly mocking his impotence before the entire class.
The film’s sexual politics are, simply put, radioactive. Individual filmgoers will likely have differing perspectives on how effectively director Lawrence balances the giddy sleaze with psychological sensitivity. It’s familiar, if uneasy, terrain for viewers who are steeped in Paul Verhoeven’s lusciously warped filmography – particularly his World War II thriller Black Book (2006) and the recent Elle (2016) – although Red Sparrow lacks the distinctive satirical bite that characterizes the Dutch filmmaker’s work. Initially, director Lawrence’s treatment of Dominika’s decidedly unconventional education has an unfortunately glib quality, as though the Sparrow School’s sexual humiliations were not all that different from the physical trials of Army boot camp. This is mitigated to an extent by the film’s later twists, which illustrate that Dominika derived vital lessons from the cruelties she suffered during her schooling – although not the lessons her spymasters likely intended.
Once Dominika emerges from the Sparrow School and is sent out into the wider world of international espionage, her path intersects with that of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), an idealistic and stupid-fearless CIA agent who has cultivated a highly placed mole within the Russian intelligence apparatus. Nate blew his cover to protect his asset some time back – around the moment that Dominika’s ballet career abruptly ended, as it happens – and he’s since surfaced in Hungary, hoping to re-establish contact with said asset. Uncle Vanya and his masters lay Dominika directly in the American’s path, with orders to seduce Nate and wheedle the identity of the SVR’s mole out of him.
There’s quite a bit of additional, sprawling skullduggery involved in Red Sparrow’s plot – including a thread about a complementary Russian mole in a U.S. senator’s office – but the meat of the story is the psychological tango between Dominika and Nate. Crucially, the CIA agent and his superiors almost immediately peg Dominika as a SVR honey trap, but Nate continues to cozy up to her, in the somewhat myopic hope that he can flip her into an Agency source. (Nate’s sudden zeal to recruit this “Red Sparrow” has everything to do with her uncle’s placement in the Kremlin, and nothing to do with her smoldering beauty, of course.) The questions that scuttle through the plot are the sort of obsessive, fractal-like doubts that lead to paralyzing paranoia: Does he know? Does she know that he knows? Does he know that she knows that he knows? And so on, down into a morass of toxic mistrust and inexorable betrayal.
The film’s central mystery is one of loyalty: namely, whether Dominika is double-crossing her Russian masters, or triple-crossing the Americans, or somehow quadruple-crossing everyone. She might be the film’s clear anti-heroic protagonist, but she is an enigma by design, her real motives a mystery until the film’s breathless conclusion. Jennifer Lawrence plays her with a perfectly maddening inscrutability, masking the woman’s intentions behind so many layers of black eyeliner and crocodile tears that the viewer is never certain if they’re watching a performance. Director Lawrence often allows glimpses of Dominika in moments of ostensibly frank anguish and terror, but each new plot swerve adds a touch of retroactive ambiguity to such moments. At bottom, Red Sparrow is a Frankenstein story, in which the Russians belatedly realize that they may have created a duplicitous monster that neither they nor anyone else can control.
Francis Lawrence, who previously directed Red Sparrow’s star in three of the four Hunger Games features (2013-2015), delivers his most polished film to date, by a substantial margin. It’s nothing groundbreaking, as spy thrillers go, but Red Sparrow is such a well-oiled, kitschy clockwork of lies, lust, and revenge that to gripe about the familiarity of the underlying raw materials – minders, moles, and Eastern Bloc grime – seems unduly cantankerous. Given the presence of eccentric, perplexing misfires like Constantine (2005) and I Am Legend (2007) in Lawrence’s filmography, it’s encouraging to see the director deliver a snug, serviceable genre exercise with the sort of gaudy, fulsome personality that brings to mind the works of Verhoeven and Brian De Palma.
Although Red Sparrow often rather brazenly indulges in the genre’s hoarier formulae, it does so with a dissolute gusto that borders on the grotesque. Accordingly, the film features not one but several viscerally punishing scenes of torture, ranging from the workmanlike brutality of a baton-and-phonebook beating to the gruesome horror of a SVR interrogator who razors off cellophane-thin slices of epidermis with an electric skin-grafting tool. Between such grisly scenes and the film’s unremitting sexual ickiness, suffice to say that Red Sparrow is nasty stuff, its violence much closer to the bone than the sort that one usually encounters in more spectacle-driven espionage cinema.
For all the film’s unabashed luridness, however, what’s refreshing about director Lawrence’s approach here is how little interest he exhibits in turning his anti-heroine into an action star. Given the endless cavalcade of male secret agents at the multiplex, the occasional appearance of a Salt (2010) or Atomic Blonde (2017) can create an understandable surge of enthusiasm among feminist-minded filmgoers. However, such well-meaning efforts often amount to little more than distaff variations on the same violent fantasy, where every challenge is resolved with fists and firepower.
Notwithstanding Red Sparrow’s exploitation-level fondness for nudity and gore, Dominika has more in common with Le Carré’s owlish MI6 spymaster George Smiley than with James Bond. Hers is a tale of patience and deception rather than traditional derring-do. In the world of Red Sparrow, life and death might hinge on little more than a tingling suspicion during a 1 a.m. rendezvous in Moscow’s Gorky Park, or a stack of archaic 3.5-inch floppy disks in a hidden compartment that lodges open at an inconvenient moment. The dissonance between these delightfully prosaic espionage-thriller elements and Red Sparrow’s enthusiastic R-rated tackiness could easily have been lethal. However, both Lawrences – director and star – steer this strange, seemingly awkward vehicle with remarkable dexterity, delivering a unique and invigorating morsel of escapist entertainment in the process.