Movie trailers can be deceptive and rely too heavily on big names. That’s not the case with “Red Sparrow”: despite starring Jennifer Lawrence and sharing a director with three “Hunger Games” movies, the political thriller’s trailers promise spy intrigue and a dark sexual edge. What’s misleading is the insinuation that these aspects are handled well.
“Red Sparrow” is fine enough in its opening moments. Famed Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova unfurls into a graceful dance on stage, watched silently by an enormous audience; not far off, CIA officer Nate Nash prepares for a risky handoff with his mole in the Russian Intelligence Service. Director Francis Lawrence cuts between these ominous happenings faster and faster as they reach their respective climaxes, ratcheting up the tension until both barrels of the proverbial shotgun blast in unison.
Thriller master Alfred Hitchcock employed this cross-cutting method to great effect, but typically near the end of his movies, when his characters were worth rooting for and the last act had dire stakes. Francis Lawrence is no Hitchcock. When his opening sequence explodes to a finish, there’s still no reason to care about anyone involved or anything going wrong—it’s like watching a crash dummy collapse in a car safety test.
And so, the experience of sitting through “Red Sparrow” remains. Throughout the entirety of this two-hour and twenty-minute car wreck, there are few legitimate reasons to invest in Dominika’s journey or that of anyone else around her. The character work is so minimal that Jennifer Lawrence—an actress with enough charisma and passion to uplift the worst movies—mostly comes across as dull and flat. Her character is a blank slate subjected to all sorts of suffering.
The film’s excessive length allows its plot to devolve into a series of convolutions. It’s not hard to follow, per se, but you won’t want to follow: when primary players Dominika and Nate aren’t developed past their jobs and circumstances, why keep track of the numerous (and implausible) plot twists? “Red Sparrow” deserves an incredulous stare, not mental heavy lifting. If that seems too harsh an arraignment, consider how its sexual politics are far more twisted than its narrative.
Even though Francis Lawrence (and ostensibly the original book’s author) appears to attempt a story of female empowerment, the result is a mire of deeply misogynistic missteps. The movie subjects Dominika (and others) to multiple scenes of graphic rape and sexual exploitation while holding its hand over her inner dialogue. “Red Sparrow” is doubly dehumanizing: it mutes Dominika’s identity while using sexual violence against her as a shortcut to pathos and reduces sexual violence in general to another chess piece in the story. Its use of other types of violence is equally brutal and senseless.
Insult is added to a pattern of injury when Dominika falls in love with the first man to treat her like a human being. Of course, “Red Sparrow” never bothers to explore this difficult dynamic beyond a sex scene wrung from the romance. Rape and abuse should not be taboo topics in art, but they should without question be handled responsibly. This film’s preference is always for its plodding plot. Interesting aesthetic choices and (wasted) talent fade behind the movie’s overwhelming cruelty—nothing can save this boring, sexist slog.