Red Sparrow tries to empower its lead by beating her mercilessly

 By Leigh Monson

   You can tell that Red Sparrow means well. It's a dark, brutal film that uses its interweaving narrative of espionage and intrigue to build a story of individual autonomy versus political and social control, and in theory the pieces are in place for an empowering bit of theater. Unfortunately, where the film believes it's succeeding as a piece of pulp political commentary, it is constantly and actively undermining itself in terms of gendered discourse. In other words, Red Sparrow seems to think that a woman's strength must necessarily be beaten out of her, and the brutality with which it demonstrates that point makes for a very discomfiting experience.
   Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian star ballet dancer injured so badly during a performance that she will never be able to dance again. With her state-funded apartment and her mother's medical care on the line, Dominika begrudgingly enters the employ of her government official uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), who places her in a training academy for seductive spies known as Sparrows. Despite resistance to her training, particularly with regards to the sexual acts she is ordered to perform, Dominika is pulled from the program early only to find herself on assignment to seduce an American agent (Joel Edgerton) and discover the identity of a mole within the Russian government.
   Structurally, this is a spy thriller, with all the attendant twists and turns that one might expect, even if some of the casting makes certain revelations a little too obvious early on. There's a decent story of compelled Russian patriotism clashing with voluntary American freedoms, but the primary focus is on Dominika's realization of personal autonomy in light of a system that has never before afforded it to her. On paper, that's a pretty good arc to explore, particularly in the film's modern Russian setting, and Lawrence does a great job of playing the character ambiguously enough that it's hard to tell whether her bids for survival are born from consistent ideology or self-preservation.
   The biggest problem, though, comes from the film's insistence on constantly beating Dominika down, either through physical or sexual violence, often at the same time, as if to say that constant torture is how she is able to achieve a state of enlightened individualism. This isn't exactly the most progressive of sexual attitudes a film could take, but the pulpiness of it could be forgiven if the torture scenes weren't shot with such explicit and disturbing detail. The film unwittingly makes its audience voyeurs to the violence its simultaneously wants to condemn and fetishize, and in the process it turns that violence into the determinative factor in Dominka's drive toward self-actualization, rather than the perfectly suitable mechanisms of state control that were oppressing her anyway. Dominka becomes a character entirely defined by her role as a sex object and her ability to overcome the expectations of that role, but she "overcomes" through constant, graphic subservience that should leave one feeling more disgusted than empowered.
   Red Sparrow is a gross film with seeds of potential scattered throughout. It's well-performed and decently plotted, if somewhat bulkily at two hours and twenty minutes, and even the scenes of extreme violence are well-staged and appropriately tense. However, it's the context within which those elements are presented that robs the film of its luster, even on a basely exploitative level. We don't need to see a woman beaten down again and again to recognize her struggles; what we need is to see her be an active participant in overcoming those struggles.

2/5 stars

Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.