CONTENT WARNING: DESCRIPTIONS AND DISCUSSIONS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT ARE BELOW
A dour tone is not a bad element for a movie to have. It can be a quite useful element in fact! Just look at classic movies like Bicycle Thieves, Ordet or Au Hasard Balthazar, all motion pictures with a somber atmosphere that make that downtrodden aesthetic because it suits the story they’re telling. A well-done bleak movie can be incredibly powerful to watch, but on the other hand, a film that mistakes the act of being grim for being inherently contemplative is one that can get tiring to watch awful quickly. Red Sparrow, the newest collaboration between director Francis Lawrence and Jennifer Lawrence after their work together on the Hunger Games sequels, is very much one of those movies that doesn’t know how to properly use its solemn tone.
Dancer Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is living a quiet life of using her paychecks from her classy ballet performances to take care of her sickly mother when an on-stage accident leaves one of her legs so badly broken that she’s no longer able to dance. Needing to get cash fast, her uncle Ivan Egorova (Matthias Schoenaerts), who works in the Russian government, convinces her to help him out an assignment that seems to be innocent but ends up with Egorova being raped and witnessing a murder. Now that she’s seen too much, Dominika is forced to attend an Academy that trains young men and women to become Sparrows who serve as spies, of sorts, for the Russian government.
Red Sparrow is intended to be yet another deconstruction of the spy movie genre, so the Sparrows are not glamorous spies like 007, they’re basically tortured to become emotionless machines that’ll do whatever the Russian government tells them to do. It is here in Dominika’s training that one of the most disturbing aspects of Red Sparrow emerges in how it treats sexual assault against women. Sparrows are basically required to embrace the process of being raped as a gateway to being a proper spy while Dominika herself is raped outside of the training sessions on two separate occasions. The film doesn’t take into account how such a turn of events would actually affect Dominika and her mindset, showcasing an all too casual attitude towards sexual assault that’s been tragically pervasive in genre cinema for decades now.
A similarly icky element related to how Red Sparrow treats women is straight out of a 1980’s horror movie as women who are seen to have any sort of embracing of regular sexual activity (namely, Dominika’s roommate, who brags about how effective oral sex is in getting information out of men) meet grisly blood-soaked violent ends that the camera lingers on. Meanwhile, the two primary male foes of the movie are dispatched by way of quick bullets to the head. Is there a purpose to this specific on-screen treatment of women and in particular sexual assault against women? I really don’t think there is and if there was supposed to be a larger thematic point made by this aspect of the production, it got entirely lost in execution. In its final form, the way Red Sparrow treats its female characters just feels like the same reason it embraces such a woefully repellant grim tone, it’s an attempt to be “edgy” simply for the sake of being “edgy”. The result is a movie that isn’t “edgy” so much as it is pervasively unsavory.
If you’re wondering why this aspect of the production sticks in my craw so badly, well, it’s because the shoddy treatment of women in Red Sparrow is probably the most noteworthy (in a bad way of course) element of the otherwise forgettable film, which makes Cars 2 look like North By Northwest when it comes to espionage thrillers. The main problem here, aside from the creepy treatment of women here, is that Red Sparrow is just empty, all it’s got is a dark tone to its name and that’s it. There’s no exciting action sequences, the potential romance between Dominika and an American agent played by a wasted Joel Edgerton is rote and there’s laughably little thematic substance to be found for such a slow-paced contemplative feature. I suppose the camerawork is decent enough if occasionally repetitive while Jennifer Lawrence does do a decent job with maintaining a Russian accent that waves from time to time but at least predominately doesn’t sound like a parody of itself.
What a pity this movie turned out to be such a mess given that Francis Lawrence has made good movies in the past (the first two-thirds of his 2007 effort I Am Legend is among Will Smith’s best movies) and a wide range of talented actors have been assembled here, including supporting roles played by the likes of Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeremy Irons. But even the greatest chefs in the world cannot churn out delectable cuisine if they don’t have good ingredients to cook with and Red Sparrow doesn’t give the talented folks at its disposal anything worthwhile to do beyond be at the mercy of a suffocatingly bleak tone that wears out it’s welcome almost the moment it starts. If James Bond has a license to kill, Red Sparrow only got a license to bore.