The first term that comes to mind when thinking of Francis Lawrence‘s Red Sparrow (20th Century Fox, 3.2), which I saw last night, is “ice-cold,” and I don’t just mean the simulations of snow-covered Russia. (The film was shot in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and, very briefly, London.) Almost everything that happens in this 139-minute, Americans-vs.-Russians spy thriller is coated with malice and arctic frost — just about every line, expression, motivation or attempt at manipulation, and every act of sadistic brutality, sexual or otherwise.
No one expects a film about a beautiful, poker-faced Bolshoi ballerina (Jennifer Lawrence‘s Dominika Egorova) being forced, after a horrid physical injury, to enroll in “whore school” (Lawrence’s term) to become a government-controlled seductress or “red sparrow,” and then graduate into the realm of double agentry, to provide any kind of emotional balm. But for the most part Red Sparrow goes out of its way to avoid even a faint hint of humanity.
Except, that is, for a couple of brief scenes between Dominika and Joel Edgerton‘s Nathaniel Nash, a CIA agent with a semblance of a heart. (The story begins with Nash on the outs with his bosses for behaving stupidly during a nighttime incident in a Moscow park, and then he attempts to redeem himself by recruiting Dominika into working for the Americans.) There are two or three scenes of domestic bonding between Dominika and her irritatingly dependent mother (Joely Richardson), but honestly? I was kind of hoping mom would get rubbed out as all she does is sit around and serve as a kind of albatross.
This is not, to put it mildly, a double-agent film with the finesse and subtlety of, say, Martin Ritt‘s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (’65), which was regarded as a rather cold-hearted piece when it opened a half-century ago. The focus on cruelty in Red Sparrow makes that John Le Carre adaptation seem rather mild in this regard. At every turn Sparrow says “try a little heartlessness.”
Red Sparrow is more in the realm of Atomic Blonde, the period (late ’80s) spy film with Charlize Theron, minus the gymnastics. It’s an aggressively sexual thing, I mean, but is mainly about all kinds of physical brutality, including a pair of attempted rapes and two especially savage beating-and-torture scenes that would, in the real world, result in God-knows-how-many-weeks in a hospital.
Most of the violence, sexual and otherwise, happens to poor Dominika, and after the third or fourth assault I was asking myself, “Is this a movie for the #MeToo era?” I suppose it is, in a way, as it does allow for a form of satisfying fuck-him revenge at the finale. But in my seventh row seat in a 20th Century Fox screening room, I was as much of a recipient of the brutality as Lawrence, and after a while I felt covered with bruises. Sorry but I empathize. It’s in my nature.