Jennifer Lawrence can’t save the dark and dissatisfying ‘Red Sparrow’

Andy Moser

20th Century Fox

Besides it being a spy/action thriller containing little in terms of action or thrills, Red Sparrow, directed by Francis Lawrence, offers a uniquely grim take on sexual exploitation. It tries, in vain, to sell an idea I never wanted to buy.

Jennifer Lawrence has had better outings, but she still firmly handles her role as Dominika, a beautiful Russian ballet dancer whose career abruptly ends when her dance partner breaks her leg. With no source of income, she’s in desperate need of a way to take care of her sick and dependent mother—a cheaply marketable motivation. Enter her creepy uncle who cajoles her into enrolling in an institution (“whore school,” as Dominika dubs it) that teaches its “sparrows” to use their bodies as tools to extract sensitive information for Russian intelligence. Thankfully, UNF left this one off the majors list.

Sparrow school preys on those who, for one reason or another, have nowhere to turn and therefore can be forced to do whatever their superiors ask. Dominika and her peers are instructed to give themselves fully to their abusers without holding anything back, effectively weaponizing their abuse at their own cost. Red Sparrow depicts its seduction with intended power and self actualization, yet the sparrows do what they do because they’re forced to do it, and they are presumably held hostage by their employers for the entirety of their lives.

Over the course of the film, Dominika is threatened, beaten senselessly, and at one point, she’s violently raped. In the end, this form of “weaponry” doesn’t feel powerful in the slightest as Dominika has sacrificed herself completely. Who she is at the end is a far cry from the person she was before, and I didn’t get the sense that this transformation was positive or worth it in any way. While her intentions are noble, her final fate isn’t one she necessarily wants, but one she is practically forced into. Her noticeable lack of agency is never truly resolved.

Jennifer Lawrence plays the Russian spy Dominka. 20th Century Fox

Sparrow’s redeeming qualities reside in its infrequent moments of wit and suspense, both of which cannot be maintained throughout its drawn out 2-hour-and-20-minute running time. There’s a point where Dominika makes fun of her boss’s microscopic anatomy, knowing well enough he’d slap her for it. Instead of the typical seduction approach, she threatens him with video of the assault before bidding him a cheerful goodnight. We also get to meet a very drunk and hilarious Mary-Louise Parker, who comments on the same man’s “toad-like” appearance.

Otherwise, this spy flick is mostly sluggish, tedious and disappointing. Red Sparrow’s biggest blunder, however, is its weak attempt at empowerment. It subjects its main character to a job she takes no pleasure in, and therefore, neither can we.

Sails: 2/5