Have you ever wanted to see a film that is simultaneously ultra-violent, uninteresting in the extreme and forty-five minutes too long? If so, you should stop reading this review immediately and see if Red Sparrow has landed (with a thud) in a theater near you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy engaging narratives, characters with character, and films with even an elementary understanding of when enough is enough, stay as far away from Red Sparrow as humanly possible.
Set in a Russia where everyone speaks English with terribly inconsistent Russian accents, Dominika Egorova is in a bit of a pickle. Having suffered a terrible accident during a performance with the Bolshoi Ballet, she must now rely on the “charity” of her uncle to survive. Said charity involves requesting that she sleep with a Russian bureaucrat in order to plant a fake phone on him, and after the man is murdered while raping her, she is sent to school to be a Sparrow.
Sparrows are, apparently, elite spies trained to use their bodies and minds as weapons of seduction. Their methods of education include forcing a young woman to fellate a homosexual criminal, and demanding that Dominika allow herself to be raped in front of a classroom of fellow students. Cheery stuff, no?
The brutality of Sparrow training hints at Red Sparrow’s most significant problem: its approach to physical and sexual violence. While I am in no way averse to seeing violent acts in my media, I prefer that they be used to punctuate drama, not replace it.
This being the case, I was surprised to find that Red Sparrow frequently resembles a film in the Saw franchise far more than something like Atomic Blonde. You will watch Jennifer Lawerence graphically shatter her leg, suffer multiple sexual assaults, be beaten and tortured, as well as showered with the blood of a man being strangled with piano wire while raping her – and that’s not even mentioning the abuse leveled at the other actors.
The most unsettling thing about all of this is the fact that the violence is ultimately in service of nothing. While it does validate the severity of the punishment Dominika will face should she fail, the aggression feels misplaced. Spy thrillers are meant to be sleek and sometimes psychological, and typically function better when they don’t act like Nicolas Winding Refn movies. Here, though, the camera lingers on broken bones, and as a man slowly grafts all of the skin off the neck of another man (screaming in agony, naturally), the director takes great care to show each layer of skin being delicately peeled from the blade.
With this almost fetishistic approach to depicting violence serving no other purpose than simple shock value, it eventually begins to feel openly hostile towards the audience. Initially, there may have been some intention to draw a parallel between the film’s brutality and the life of a Sparrow, but that idea seems to have been cast aside in favor of making the act of watching Red Sparrow as unpleasant as possible.
While Red Sparrow would have functioned far better without all of the gratuitous torture and gore, I can only assume that it was added as a measure to distract moviegoers from the bland, listless plot. Built on the stale and criminally overdone “whose side is she really on?” trope, the narrative makes few attempts to actually trick viewers into believing one thing or another, instead assuming that if Jennifer Lawerence says something everybody will trust it implicitly.
A suitable number of predictable twists later, the purpose of everything is revealed, and it’s… kind of hysterical. I won’t ruin it for anybody whose determined to see the movie, but it was underwhelming, to say the least. Even though the revelation was one of the only engaging moments in the entire film, it was explained directly to the audience in the most blunt manner possible, almost as an apology for having put the audience through two very dull hours.
The other major issue with Red Sparrow is its length. Clocking in at a whopping 140 minutes, the film is just too long for the story it’s telling. This may not have been quite as impactful on my opinion of the film had the pacing not also been as wrong-headed as everything else on display. Around the third time it thought it was ending I sincerely considered leaving the theater. The fourth time, I began to feel like Sisyphus; condemned to repeat this experience for all time. When the credits finally rolled, I realized that I had just wasted nearly three hours and began to feel the implications of my mortality.
To the credit of the direction and cinematography, when you’re not being made to sit through lifeless dialogue or bloody interrogations, Red Sparrow does look quite excellent. Most shots were well composed, and the color palate supported the tone nicely. While I appreciate the attempt to make the film visually interesting at the very least, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that it does so to divert attention from its plentiful shortcomings.
I truthfully don’t understand exactly what the purpose of Red Sparrow is. It’s marketing and content seem geared towards completely different demographics, virtually ensuring that both groups will leave disappointed. Its script is poor, and the story is a flatline. Not a single character or performance is worthy of note, with the exception of highlighting just how weak the faux Russian accents are across the board.
Without a single remarkable feature to its credit, it’s very difficult to understand exactly what the intention was behind the scenes, and even harder to recommend that anyone spend their hard earned money and limited time on this film. Maybe if you really like (or really hate) Jennifer Lawerence, you’ll find something to enjoy, but for the most part, any time spent watching Red Sparrow would be better spent doing just about anything else.