Ugly Complexities: Our Review of ‘Red Sparrow’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - March 02, 2018
Ugly Complexities: Our Review of ‘Red Sparrow’

The Red Sparrow trailer splashed onto screens, promising a sexy spy thriller that focuses on the sex. Now, North America’s has a hypocritical, squeamish relationship towards sex. The trailer also shamelessly ogles its star Jennifer Lawrence. Which made me wonder what happened to Lawrence, the rebellious reluctant star. She’s is finally giving the audiences what she might think we want. The second trailer gave us a taste of what the movie could be like. Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, who becomes a spy to take care of her mother (Joely Richardson). Now that’s more like it, a premise with gravitas, with a small pinch of self awareness.

Red Sparrow has eerie similarities of Lawrence’s last movie series with Francis Lawrence. Just like The Hunger Games franchise, its setting is a world with wide economic gaps. However, instead of Panem we get modern day Russia. And like the famous YA films it’s about a lucky female character who gets to cross those social boundaries. In The Hunger Games, it’s a long train ride from District 12 to the Capitol. This time it’s easier for Dominika to walk from her high rise apartment to schmooze with Moscow’s elite. The movie is also based on a book, this time, it’s one that former CIA operative Jason Matthews wrote.

The most obvious gripe against this movie concerns the Russian characters and the Americans they’re spying on. The actors don’t correspond with the nationalities of the characters they play. There are enough people of Russian descent who are working in films today. Those people never get to play these roles. Of course, the American characters have the accent down pat. Unsurprisingly, some of these actors playing Russians decide whether or not to speak with Russian accents. They also choose how heavy the said accents should be. Lawrence’s is inconsistent but not heavy enough to be distracting, although the movie distracts its audience in other ways.

In any case, Lawrence doesn’t get enough respect for choosing work that end up sparking lively debate. This film gets a response like this even in racy Hollywood fare that follows some of its genre conventions. We don’t expect a big budget production like this to have severe depictions of violence. Yet here it is in full force. Dominika was the prima ballerina for the Bolshoi theatre. The reason she steps down form that cushy job and enter the world of espionage is because of an injury. That crunch we hear as her partner (Sergei Polunin) inadvertently breaks her leg is loud. It also hints on how harshly everyone else gets it.

There’s a close-up of Dominika’s face after her injury. That is probably one of the most honest images of a star in recent movie history. She’s not, however, the only person having a bad night in Moscow. The film shows her day in parallel with another person in Moscow. This time being American spy Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). A bad information transfer in a park with his Russian contact makes the CIA extract him from that country. He, of course, wants to return to the East. So Russia sends Dominika to Nate and to use any means needed to get his trust.

Dominika’s road to espionage, however, is long and convoluted. It does the worst and most distasteful job in procrastinating against the eventual meeting of the two assassins. One plot point involves her boss, Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts). Get it? Anyway, he sends the green spy on a suicide mission to switch some oligarch’s phone. Anticipating that mission’s failure, Vanya has the choice of killing his niece. By the way, he repeats the phrase ‘my niece’ in case the audience has tuned the movie out. Instead of killing her, he sends her to Sparrow School. It’s an institution that trains young Russians to be the best secret agents.

Recruiting a vaguely famous person like a dancer to become a spy is not without precedent. Neither is using beauty to extract information. However, it’s the little details that stretch what audiences consider believable. Sparrow School’s headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) rambles on about the West’s weaknesses. These includes social media and race, as if our Eastern friends don’t have the same problems. Campy films shouldn’t wink too hard. There’s also part of her training which involves exploiting the students’ sexuality. What follows is public nudity and making the recruits watch S&M pornography. The students get as nasty as the headmistress, Dominika having to survive all of them.

Dominika is a complex character, resisting orders both in Sparrow School and in the field. This somehow reflects the traits of the actress portraying her, who also entered an equally abusive world. Just like Dominika, the movie she’s in is a balancing act. It’s a compromise of provoking the system while showing how the mutineers benefit said system. There’s also an artful side here, with moments showing the gilded world where Dominika can live and maybe rule. The film’s ugly side also pushes on, challenging what audiences think of what’s real. Too bad it’s that side that wins over, eschewing any sort of restraint.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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