Friday, 16 March 2018

Red Sparrow (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After an injury cuts her career as a ballerina short, Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is left with a terrible choice: Submit to her circumstances or work for the Russian government as a Sparrow.
As she learns the ways of the Sparrow, using seduction and psychology to intercept targets, she becomes entangled with CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) after accepting an assignment to find a Russian mole that Nate works with. Between the government forcing her hand, her fellow agents showing signs of distrust and the actual warmth shown by Nate, it seems Dominika will have to think fast if she wants to get out of this situation alive.

As troubling as it is that Lawrence’s stock character appears to “woman pushed into extreme circumstances at the whims of men”, between this, mother! and the Hunger Games series, credit to her for selling every compromised emotion that she’s given. Alluring, conflicted, traumatised, sharp; whatever the story requires her to be, both in and out of universe, she manages to fit the mold. Edgerton, playing the CIA agent with the most American name in the history of espionage, works well with the more socially isolating aspects of spy work and his chemistry with Lawrence evens out, but something tells me that his inclusion in the plot could have been handled better (starts well with the opening, feels intrusive in the first act, and then back to fine for the rest of the film; it’s weird). 
Charlotte Rampling as the Matron of the Sparrow School is as cutthroat as the Soviet sickle, embodying the very confronting politique at the heart of this story, and her scenes in the… uh… I guess it can be called a classroom, are very effective because of her sheer unnerving presence. Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds as two Russian colonels only manage to occupy space and deliver pretty basic ‘progress report’ dialogue, and Matthias Schoenaerts as Dominika’s very Putin-looking uncle adds to Rampling’s performance as far as furthering the spirit-breaking core of the film.

So, we’re looking at a female-lead spy thriller centred on a conflict between the U.S. and Russia… again. As easy as it would be to just go straight to the comparisons between this and Atomic Blonde, they are ultimately playing from completely different playbooks. This is far more moody than action-oriented, striving to dig into the audience’s skin rather than get their hearts racing. The way that director Francis Lawrence chooses to get this across skates the line between gritty and gratuitous with alarming regularity, never holding back on the blood and bruises while also letting some rather classical Russian architecture balance it out. The opening, featuring Dominika performing ballet intercut with Nate Nash (that name isn’t getting any less silly) out on an assignment, shows this work of contrast at its purest. 
Of course, it can get rather confronting when the film’s approach to murder, sex and spy work intertwine, resulting in moments in the Sparrow school that enter mindfrag territory in how jarring they can be. Add to this the rather plain spy narrative, which plays out suspiciously close to the main plot of Atomic Blonde, and you have definite skill behind the camera, but not the deftness of touch to make it fully bloom.

That makes things a little difficult when this film has quite a bit of textual gold to be unearthed. For a start, this film’s approach to sex and sexuality is very pointed and has a definite point to make. Given the West’s familiarity with gentlemen spy tropes thanks to the proclivity of James Bond, “probing for information” is a recognisable double entendre. Here, that idea of sex on the job in espionage is put under the microscope and we are shown how a body is tempered to prepare for such encounters. Knowing the right buttons to push, being able to separate one’s emotions from one’s work, even submitting to the act against one’s own will.
Yeah. This film’s use of rape is more than a little suspect, given how tonally awkward it can be in places, but at the same time, the filmmakers seem to understand the real intent behind such an act: Not sexual gratification, but exerting power. And that is what this film uses sexuality as: One of the more potent means in the arsenal to get close to a target. It’s weaponised as a means of creating control, and not only do the scenes involving sex work because of how just much pain had be gone through in order to reach that stage, but also because they highlight something real and tender between Dominika and Nate.

Of course, the use of sex as a weapon and tempering tool for the human body is just a slice of the film’s bigger motif: The power of the Russian state. Much like Leviathan from a few years back, this film’s depiction of Russian society is a harrowing one, one that boils down the individual identity until all that’s left is what can serve the whole. What makes the more brutal scenes involving Dominika hit as hard as they do is partly due to the graphic details involved, but also because we know that every single situation Dominika is in has been forced upon her. She is not a person in her own right. Her will, her body, her being; all of it belongs to the state, and they will use it as they wish or she won’t even have a body anymore. A recurring motif of the film involves characters saying that there is no such thing as luck and that everything happens for a reason; this certainly shows the more depressing side of that stance.
This is where the spy plot actually manages to pick up a bit, as we see Dominika not only being forced by her government to do their dirty work but also surrounded by potentially-untrustworthy faces. It builds on the usual sense of paranoia that spy capers make their names on by drawing attention to how much reason Dominika has to be paranoid. As a result, we have a film that seems well-fitted for today’s rather shaky climate as far as Russian involvement is concerned, and yet doesn’t enter the realms of propaganda; it’s brutal, but it also seems to come from a learned place.

All in all, while quite rich as far as writing goes (bit of a surprise, coming from the writer of A Cure For Wellness) and boasting a pretty solid performance from Jennifer Lawrence, it doesn’t keep up its own momentum for enough of the far-too-lengthy running time. It makes interesting points on communism, espionage and sexual power, yet seems far more interested in regular spy shenanigans to focus on it too much; most of the good stuff ends up relegated to the first half of the film. This is a situation much like 2015’s Joy where the film could easily work solely off of Lawrence’s performance, but the presence of more gripping material between the lines just gives me the feeling that there is a more focused, shorter and altogether better film lying in wait somewhere in here. As it stands, though, it’s decent. Not great, but decent.

1 comment:

  1. Great review..comprehensive and insightful.
    LOL...I enjoyed the movie but didnt really understand why until you explained it to me.
    Ive just added your blog to my bookmarks knowing that in the future you'll help me out of a similar predicament.
    Keep producing critique like this and you'll go places.
    Cheers and all the best.