When Jason Matthews’ best-selling spy thriller novel Red Sparrow debuted in 2013, the CIA gave it a glowing review in an official statement, toasting the former agent-turned-author’s ability to convey accurately the stomach-churning tension a spy feels when covering tracks to protect sources and win the war of intelligence. Director Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of Matthews’ novel must be the dumbed-down version, the one the bureau won’t be celebrating for its grasp of the nuances of spycraft. Rather, this Red Sparrow, written by Justin Haythe, seems to be about the desperate quest to get one sexy woman very naked. It’s true that seduction is an age-old espionage tactic, but this film tells us nothing new about it — or about Hollywood’s male gaze.
In the early scenes, Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) breaks her leg during a performance. The sick crack of it made me jump in my seat. Director Lawrence takes us inside the surgery room to hear and see the drill grinding screws through bone to repair the break. This is a hint at how gruesome Lawrence is willing to go with the action to come. Dominika is hard up after the surgery, the ballet company having paid for her apartment and her mother’s health care. So her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) sends her on a little mission for the Kremlin to test her persuasive skills — by seducing an oligarch — and see if she might be a good fit for his work. This is the first of many scenes where Dominika will be asked to strip naked. By men, by women, doesn’t really matter.
Even when she’s sent to Red Sparrow spy school — or, rather, is forced to go or else she’ll get shot in the head — her education seems to cover nothing but getting naked in front of people, with maybe about three seconds of picking locks thrown in, too. Charlotte Rampling plays the school’s matron, pontificating on how a Red Sparrow must learn to read what her target sexually desires. The “lessons” we see are no more than a few minutes of the matron berating students and telling them to suck dick in front of everyone. But where is the action? Where are the scenes of the Sparrows actually learning spycraft, so we can see how mentally and physically grueling it all is?
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Dominika pummels with precision the fellow Red Sparrow hopeful, a man, who tries to rape her in the shower after she humiliates him (by answering a question correctly in class!). Presumably, she learned, somewhere, to punch, to assess her surroundings and attack using whatever objects she can secure — in this case, a shower knob she rips off and wields as a shank. But we don’t get to see that training. The assault becomes part of her training. The matron tells Dominika to strip naked and “give [the rapist] what he wants” and only then, when she’s nude and splayed on a Danish modern desk in front of her classmates, does she assess and announce that what the rapist actually wanted wasn’t sex, but power. That insight, in the world of Red Sparrow, means Dominika gets treated as a genius. Someone inform the folks at Jezebel that they’re qualified as Russian spies now.
There are other tells that this film attempting to get into a woman’s psyche is written by a man. One is how wrong it gets very simple “female knowledge.” Dominika decides to bleach her hair blonde in order to attract the attention of an American agent, Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), she’s been assigned to seduce. For the men who have never had at-home-hair-dye disasters, here are some tips: You can’t successfully bleach your hair blonde with store-bought box dye; long/thick hair requires multiple boxes; you cannot, under any circumstances, go swimming in a chlorinated pool after you bleach. This may seem like a piddling quibble, but if you want women to trust that you have made an earnest effort to dissect a woman’s psyche, don’t just assume you know the details.
And if we can’t trust the makeover, how can we trust the spy stuff? The film gives only the most paltry consideration to geopolitics, to relations between the U.S. and Russia or America’s own corrupt operations. The U.S. is portrayed as the genial, ethical country, mostly through Edgerton’s bumbling nice-guy routine for Nathaniel. Throughout, Vanya and his Kremlin cronies threaten Dominika’s life, torturing her, but the Russians’ objectives are presented simply as: Be evil.
Lawrence and Haythe’s aims may be, partially, to evoke sympathy for Dominika and her ilk by depicting how the Kremlin emotionally breaks its agents. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the FX show The Americans and point out that its writers have set the gold standard for portraying sympathetic Russian-agent characters and highly complicated spycraft techniques — and its seduction scenes are never haphazard. Every “villain” in that show possesses their own skewed logic. Here? Not so much. With Lawrence (the director) and Lawrence (the actor) so professionally in tune over the course of three Hunger Games films, you might have hoped that the pair would deliver an off-the-rails, more mature action film with a nuanced female protagonist. But instead, they’ve delivered a lifeless peep show.