March 01, 2018

'Red Sparrow' is a slow burn, even with Jennifer Lawrence

Review: Extreme violence and use of graphic sex in film during #MeToo movement is already generating controversy

Movies Reviews
Red Sparrow Stephen Smith/SIPA USA

L-R: Actress Sasha Frolova, choreographer Kurt Froman, actresses Isabella Boylston, Thekla Reuten, Mary-Louise Parker, Jennifer Lawrence, actor Joel Edgerton, director Francis Lawrence and actress Joely Richardson attend the U.S. premiere of "Red Sparrow" at Alice Tully Hall in New York, NY on Feb. 26, 2018.

When the trailers for "Red Sparrow" first hit, the thought among many was that Fox was beating Marvel Studios to the punch with their own version of Black Widow.

Such is not the case. At all.

Rather than a "Jane Bourne" character, star Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina who is injured, informed the state still owns her and, if she wants her sick mother to still be taken care of, she must become a Russian spy, make contact with a CIA agent and uncover a possible mole.

Only instead of learning how to kick a** and become a living weapon, she soon learns the school trains to use their bodies in any way possible to advance the cause of the state.

Under the school's teacher (Charlotte Rampling), the students are to shed whatever morality they have and simply do what is necessary for the state's interests.

One young student is told to "service" a man she considers a degenerate in front of the whole class. Likewise, after beating a soldier who tried to rape her in the shower – a scene shown in trailers – Lawrence is asked why she put her virtue above giving a soldier what he wanted, and he is brought to the classroom to have sex with her in front of everyone.

It is to Lawrence's credit that in scenes like these, she never loses her power. But she never is truly interesting or inspiring either.

However, the cast of major characters in this is so small – Lawrence, her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), the CIA agent (Joel Edgerton), a compromised senator (Mary-Louise Parker) and a Russian general (Jeremy Irons) – and that is often to the film's detriment because the stakes are, as well.

No one is saving the world here. The conflicts are all internal – from Dominika trying to please the state while not losing herself, to the search for the mole, to Dominika's interest in his niece going beyond familial.

This would be fine, except everyone keeps things so close to the vest for so long, the film – while never boring – often doesn't seem like it's going anywhere.

That a film with this much violence, torture and sex in it – especially when we're talking about young women being pressured to give themselves to men in order to please the "Powers That Be" – was made in the current #MeToo environment – is remarkable. There are bound to be calls for boycotts from both ends of the political spectrum.

But the film is worth seeing for the last half hour, in which major twist after major twist come.

The last half hour saves the movie and makes it memorable. Too bad the rest of it is such a slow burn.

I guess we will have to wait for that "Black Widow" movie after all.

Grade: C+