The best thing about Jennifer Lawrence’s most recent stretch of films is how little she seems to give a shit about whether or not you, the US Weekly-buying here-for-it drama consumer, enjoy the movies that she makes. Her last three releases, including the deeply fucked-up Passengers, the sweat-soaked Darren Aronofsky-directed fever dream mother! and now Red Sparrow, an embodiment of sexual nihilism crafted by her Hunger Games collaborator Francis Lawrence (we’ll refer to the star as J-Law from this point onwards), are abrasive, often offensively so, and are seemingly designed to keep audiences away from the theater.
To say that I’m most definitely intrigued and captivated by her choices now is a vast understatement. As a story, Red Sparrow is troubled enough: It has some terrible pacing problems, especially in the first and third acts, and all of the supposed geopolitical realism that the novel it’s based on contains has been abandoned along with any nuance. But it’s done so in a favor of director Lawrence’s approximation of a lobotomized Paul Verhoeven, whose salacious touch the thriller genre so desperately misses, and with a game and capable J-Law, chief amongst the solid ensemble, ready to rock and roll, it’s a trashy and captivating mess worthy of an audience member’s toothy grin.
(Before I go any further, I want to just go ahead and place a gigantic Trigger Warning for content about sexual assault, given that it’s nearly impossible to discuss this film without talking about certain scenes. This should apply to the movie as well for any potentially curious viewers.)
J-Law plays Dominika, a prima ballerina at the head of the Bolshoi Ballet, who spends her days tending to her ailing mother and her nights dancing for Moscow’s wealthy and powerful. Her uncle, Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts, who looks disconcertingly like the Russian President here), is the deputy director of the FSB, who is feeling the heat from his superiors (a barely-there Ciaran Hinds and a gleefully morose Jeremy Irons) about a potential mole in their ranks, who is caught on camera by Russian Police giving information to a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) in the middle of a Moscow park. He’s there the night that a dancer lands on Dominika’s leg, fracturing it and ending her career with the Bolshoi right then and there. Months later, once she’s recovered somewhat and her mother’s health is jeopardy after the Ballet stopped paying for her treatment. Oh, and she’s in trouble, too, for beating that dancer from earlier and his lover, a rival of hers, who plotted against her to boost the lover’s status in the company. So yeah, she’s in a heap of trouble at the end of the first act.
Lawrence directs this opening with his kind of staid stylistics, which worked well enough on the Hunger Games films that he was responsible for but chafes under the lack of charisma or involvement that a cast that crazy afforded it. It’s not great, though occasional bits shine through: J-Law venturing into a steam-clouded shower holding a cane as her weapon, as the figures of the dancer and his lover slowly become clearer, revealing them in the midst of love-making.
Anyways, good ol’ Uncle Egorov comes to her with an offer regarding one of the businessmen who often saw her at the ballet: Ask him for help and lure him to his bedroom so that we can arrest him, and the state’ll help her mother out with those doctors that she desperately needs and wipe her record clean. Dominika takes him up on the offer, but the situation spirals out of her control, as the businessman attempts to assault her once they arrive upstairs. It’s pretty bad, and he’s garroted by a leather-clad biker who proceeds to wipe out the man’s entourage as well. It’s here that the movie really picks the fuck up, and Lawrence finds himself a hook to hang his narrative on. And boy, is it sure to be one controversial hook. Deciding that she’s seen too much, Egorov feeds his niece to the wolves of the Russian intelligence apparatus in a particularly perverse fashion: she’s sent to Sparrow School, where the dregs of society are led to abandon their sexual hang-ups by their headmistress (Charlotte Rampling, in the best casting in the film) and fuck and kill enemies of the state for the glory of the Motherland.
You might think I’m joking, but I’m not: Their entire training is about stripping nude and diagnosing the traumas and wants of the people they’re stripping nude for. It’d be despicable if it weren’t so entirely ridiculous — filmed in the flattest possible style to make things even more outrageous — and oddly compelling watching Rampling tear into her students for misidentifying the reason a wealthy man takes prostitutes for dinner or torture a homophobe sporting a bowl-cut who believes gay men are degenerates. J-Law is often the target of her ire, and after a horrible encounter with a fellow student in the shower, does something so outrageous to emasculate him that you’ll probably have walkouts from people who think it’s Black Widow: The Movie. It’s not like the movie has anything to posit beyond “the lust for power does and masks terrible things,” “the state controls your body,” and “once you’re disposable, the Russians will get rid of you,” and it is most definitely deeply offensive to any number of well-meaning people. We’re in Z-Grade exploitation territory here, only with the country’s most popular actress instead of, say, Dyanne Thorne, and it’s both thrilling and baffling to watch unfold, and I was utterly captivated.
Eventually, Egorov pushes for his niece to be put into the field to track down and seduce the CIA agent- the-people-are-definitely-named-that-outside-of-crime-novels Nate Nash — who eluded Russian Police earlier and seduce him. He’s in Budapest, and Dominika heads out there in order to do her job, or she and her mother will die. Nash is, at first glance, better at spycraft in all forms than she is, and he believes that he can flip her and turn her into an asset, somewhat cynically, and tells his superiors (Sakina Jaffery and the great Bill Camp) that he can most definitely do it. Camp’s given the film’s only gag line, and he wields it well, and Edgerton is as solid as he always is, even though he’s a kind of silly fusion of Jason Bourne and Martin Riggs in his manner. He has better chemistry with Lawrence than a number of her co-stars, and it’s disconcerting how many of her marks in this movie look like Josh Hutcherson. Also, let’s just say that those looking for some sort of diatribe against Uncle Sam meandering in Eastern Europe and Russia need look elsewhere: It’s not as jingoistic as, say, the James Bond movies, but we’re definitely the sort-of good-guys here. Cue “Real American,” guys.
The gradual development of their relationship and the ambiguous dynamic of predator and prey between the two spies really fucks up the transition between acts, as the third act is full of plot happenings and violence and sex but slowly grows repetitive and bland as it’s extremity is used too frequently to too little effect. By the third torture sequence within that last hour, you’ll be looking at your watch, which isn’t necessarily what you want when you’re watching a man literally get his skin shaved off of him with a device used to remove skin for grafting. But there are moments that pop: A penultimate conversation between Egorov and Dominika in which their relationship is tested into taboo waters, a bizarre appearance by Mary-Louise Parker as an asset the Russians are cultivating in London, and the final ten minutes are all are memorable enough to make up for the occasional blandness. After all, you are watching a Francis Lawrence movie, and the man has trouble keeping my interest while typing his name, but he does a solid job here, and it’s proof that he only goes so far in fucking up his own films (most notably I Am Legend): Sometimes it really is the source material.
As for J-Law, she’s probably what keeps this train a-rollin’ and from barreling off the rails and crashing into a suburb. Her performance grounds some of the movie’s more ridiculous aspects in some sort of recognizable emotion and heart, even if she’s caught up in it all by the end of the film. It’s most definitely the kind of strange and brave work we should hope from performers with her status, and even if Red Sparrow ain’t perfect, it’s definitely captivating, brazen, and ambitious in its pursuits of crafting a modern ugly entertainment.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Photo via 20th Century Fox.