CREDIT: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Bill Camp, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey, Mary-Louise Parker

Director: Francis Lawrence

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Rating: R for Nudity as Power, Pleasure, and Disgrace; Spycraft Violence; and Slice-and-Dice, Pounding Torture

Release Date: March 2, 2018

Red Sparrow is the latest spy story that hinges on a final act revelation of a mole. the logic (or lack thereof) of such a twist is something I often can’t make heads or tails out of. The narrative-consuming part of my brain just is not that wired that way. But as far as I can tell, this particular mole’s exposure does pass the plausibility test, though it is not especially impactful. But Red Sparrow’s intrigue thankfully goes beyond any straightforward conception of traitors and double agents. In fact, it questions and pokes at (without quite fully deconstructing) the entire concept of double agency when it involves someone who seems to be an ideal fit for the job but does not want anything to do with professional deception.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina who suffers a career-ending injury and then faces the crisis of how she will be able to continue to take care of her widowed mother. So her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits her to become a spy at the Red Sparrow School, which essentially requires its trainees to sacrifice their entire identities to the Russian government. Meanwhile, CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton) gets mixed up with Dominika as he hunts down high-level Russian spies. (He is temporarily suspended after making a huge mistake out in the field, but that does not affect matters as it much as it seems like it is supposed to.) Nash and Dominika’s motivations appear to match up, but of course there is that age-old question: can opposing sides truly trust each other when working together? In this case, the answer actually does appear to be yes, and a more pressing question is: is it possible for individuals to get what they want when insidious bureaucratic forces are pulling the strings everywhere?

Fundamentally driving Red Sparrow and several of its characters is the idea that the Cold War never really ended (it just broke into many pieces, as one of them puts it). That may sound a little over-the-top for a film aiming for some degree of verisimilitude, but then you see what former KGB agent Vladimir Putin is up to, and all the alleged Russian hacking in foreign elections, and on second thought, maybe this does not sound so farfetched at all. Even if it did, it would be perfectly legitimate to put something insanely conspiratorial on film. The problem is that we have seen this sort of cinematic Russian subterfuge plenty of times before.

That familiarity is overcome a decent amount by Charlotte Rampling, whose performance sets the tone for the state of modern Russian spycraft. She is the headmistress of the Sparrow School, and she insists that you call her “Matron.” We have seen this sort of officious, beat-you-down-and-re-mold-you character in plenty of other iterations, but Rampling brings a level of camp and matter-of-factness hitherto unseen. Not only, in her parlance, is every person “a puzzle of need,” but also so many people today are “drunk on shopping and social media,” which would normally sound irritatingly reductive but comes off as venomously delicious when she says it.

Red Sparrow’s most lasting impact is derived less from espionage and more from its examination of human behavior and interpersonal power dynamics. There are several scenes featuring graphic torture and nudity (including rape and attempted rape), and they do not come off as simply exploitative, because they are there to elucidate the effects they have on individuals. It is heavily implied that Sparrows are really groomed from birth to give themselves over entirely to the government. They are indoctrinated that their bodies are not their own, that they must give themselves up to give their marks exactly what they want in service of a greater power. Dominika, while in many ways an ideal recruit, never fully gives in. She decides that she is willing to make her body available, but she maintains a level of resistance. When naked, she asserts her power, which is resonant in the Me Too era (and eternally so) and metatextually, it works as a statement from Lawrence, herself a victim of a nude photo hack, that she will work this intimately only on her own terms. Thanks to her steely performance, Red Sparrow works as a defense of the dignity of every individual human being.

Red Sparrow is Recommended If You Like: The Americans, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Oppressed women taking control, Oppressed citizens taking control, Frightening headmistresses, Torture scenes with a purpose

Grade: 3 out of 5 Floppy Disks