REVIEW: Effort is needed to make ‘Red Sparrow’ worth watching

Image: 20th Century Fox.

Before arriving at the theater for an afternoon screening of Red Sparrow my brother remarked about a number of tepid reviews he’d previously read. I replied that I hoped the film would either be terrible or great because, “the 2.5 to 3 star review is the most difficult to write.” Well, here we are.

Much of the advanced talk about Red Sparrow has focused on the sex and nude scenes Jennifer Lawrence filmed for it. While this seems like a rather cheap ploy – especially for an actress of Lawrence’s caliber and given her infamous photo leaks – the fact is that for everything the film does during its time on screen, very little of it is as immediately remarkable or even memorable as these particular scenes. While it would have been possible to film these same scenes without the nudity, the images are not gratuitous. These are not sexy or alluring. They’re ugly and violent. They’re also the film’s most powerful. The “whore school” to which Lawrence’s Dominika is sent following an on-stage accident which ends her ballet career (and which has been another source of criticism) itself could serve as an allegory of the last few years of Lawrence’s personal and professional life. For Dominika it’s a process of learning to use her body to seduce and extract secrets from those her leaders in Moscow have targeted. For Lawrence it’s the sad fact that celebrities have no privacy. Both women learn, in tragic ways, that their bodies do not belong to them. Thus it could be argued that Red Sparrow is a necessary step in Jennifer Lawrence’s professional development and personal recovery. In the same way that Dominika’s time in the Sparrow School is necessary in order to believe what she becomes capable of later on, so that she doesn’t simply jump from an overwhelmed and unsure broken ballerina to a stoic and confident femme fatale, Red Sparrow may be the bridge Lawrence needs to transition from a talented “it-girl” actress to a seasoned movie star. This idea at least gives some justification for the film, because there isn’t much else.

One boy and one girl, in formless gray clothes, ruled over by an authoritarian government. Hmmm… looks a lot like District 12.
Image: 20th Century Fox.

Both Red Sparrow‘s strengths and weaknesses are on display in the very opening sequence where Dominika’s horrific final performance is interspersed with a clandestine meeting between a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) and his Russian contact. On the surface the film handles its storytelling well with its two narratives intriguing enough to demand attention, even nicely zeroing in on little gestures such as a hand on the back, a kiss on the cheek, and a code delivered over the phone. However, there is a lack of connection to the CIA character and just enough minor details, such as the camera avoiding showing Lawrence’s face during the dance in a way which makes it clear a body double is performing for her, that the sequence doesn’t pack as much impact as it could if handled a little bit better. The same is true of the film as a whole. There is an interesting story, a strong lead, and a solid theme to build around, yet Red Sparrow as it is never fully utilizes any of these elements. Like Dominika herself, it’s unable to fulfill its full potential before the spotlight ends, leaving viewers wondering what happened and what could have been.

‘Red Sparrow’ isn’t as striking as it could be.
Image: 20th Century Fox.

This isn’t to the say the film is terribly disappointing, at least not at first, since there wasn’t much promise to begin with. Having previously collaborated with “J Law” (the exact sort of unfortunate nickname Lawrence will have hopefully left behind after this film) on the final three Hunger Games movies, director Francis Lawrence (no relation) knows enough to not let his filmmaking interfere with his star. Through workmanlike direction F. Lawrence never detracts from J. Lawrence’s presence, yet with little which could be described as “style” there’s nothing which enhances the performance either. As her character is trained in deception and manipulation, Lawrence (Jennifer) is offered little chance to ever display any depth or emotion as even internal conflict or a hint of doubt would, in terms of narrative, pose a threat to Dominika’s life. Add to this is the stoicism so commonly attributed to Russian society and one could as easily argue that Lawrence (the actress) turns in a tightly nuanced performance as a wronged woman leveraging her way through a patriarchal society in which her only asset she is sex appeal as one could argue that she’s a flat character who simply falls back on her conditioning to get what she wants. Between other bland turns and Jeremy Irons’s accent taken from the Sean Connery school of Russian linguistics, the most standout supporting performance belongs to Mary Louise Parker in a short, mostly comedic role. Of course there’s also the problem that Russian characters and American characters are all speaking English all the time with no acknowledgement that either may be speaking another language. It’s a small and insignificant bother that could be easily explained and even made into a point of interest if only some attention had been given. And that’s the problem.

The film’s supporters describe Red Sparrow as focusing on themes like power, choice, and sexual abuse, the story of a woman retaking control of a life which had been snatched away from her. This is all well and good except that very little of this theme actually comes through on screen. The scenes which do hint at these themes are powerful, vicious, and Lawrence (the actress) is unflinching in them, yet they are too brief when compared to the by-the-numbers spy thriller which follows. Like their previous collaboration, Lawrence (the director) seems to emphasize competent storytelling over allegorical or thematic resonance. His Hunger Games films lacked the brutal, satirical messaging of the novels (although perhaps laying it a bit too thick at the end of the final entry) but Red Sparrow seems to have no theme or purpose except in theory. Yet where Catching Fire had intrigue, emotion, intensity, and action to make up for what it lost in depth, Red Sparrow only has a plot that is quickly and easily predictable. By the end there’s very little still worth watching for other than the chance of more flesh, more torture, and, in some cases, both. These elements fill a narrative purpose, but what then is the purpose of that narrative? If it was to explore themes of power, control, and the sexual abuse of those with power and control over those without, then the film should have done more to favor that over the banal plot. Themes are there upon research and further consideration but more focus and effort is needed to bring them out during the film itself, where the audience would be aware of them. Instead, discussions of such ideas become over analysis for the sake of retroactively justifying the film’s existence.

‘Red Sparrow’ is at its best when it’s ugliest.
Image: 20th Century Fox.

It takes a lot of work to make a film and this film in particular seems one that its star, Lawrence the actress, put a lot of herself into (pun not entirely intended) so it’s hard when this labor results in something as unremarkable as Red Sparrow. The film itself isn’t good enough or bad enough to remember other than for, well, the exact thing everyone is talking about. Maybe in the long run Red Sparrow will somehow serve Lawrence the actress in same way that Swordfish prepared Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball, although Lawrence the actress already has an Oscar so that analogy falls apart except to say that no one remember Swordfish beyond one scene, the one everyone talked about.  

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.