A friend recently joked that Red Sparrow is the result of Fox saying that if Marvel isn’t going to make a Black Widow movie, they’ll go ahead and do it. Red Sparrow does somewhat match Natasha Romanoff’s back-story, but this is definitely not the Disney version. The Disney version may not even be possible in the wake of this brutal and unflinching look at the subject matter.
1. What’s it about?
Dominika Egorova is a ballerina with the Bolshoi, until an injury ends her career. Her creepy uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) “helpfully” offers to give her a new job so that she can provide for her widowed mother. It turns out that the job is in espionage, and Dominika is soon packed off to “Sparrow School” where she will learn to use sex as a weapon. Meanwhile, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), an American CIA agent, has been removed from Russia after a mission went south, but he’s the only agent that “Marble”, a mole embedded in the Russian government, will work with. Eventually, Nash and Dominika square off as rivals in an elaborate espionage chess game, which leads them to develop feelings for each other… or do they? Are they still trying to manipulate each other? Who can you trust when trust is weaponized?
2. Will I like it?
If you like cerebral spy thrillers that don’t depend on car crashes and gunplay, you might. Red Sparrow demands you pay attention, and it alternately draws you in with emotional conflict and repels you with gruesome violence. It’s a brilliantly-plotted story with real stakes.
3. Will my kids like it?
Unless you are an extremely permissive parent, your kids are almost certainly not going to see it. It’s a hard R.
4. How hard an R is it?
Well, let’s see…. The MPAA says “Red Sparrow is Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity.” Early on we get a gruesome leg-break, followed by gruesome surgery, then a sex scene is interrupted by a violent assault, and then there’s a rape, murder, nudity, forced sex, another attempted rape, a solid beat-down, torture, more nudity, more sex, another murder with torture on the side, more torture, more sex, nudity while being tortured, more murder…
5. Sounds grim. Is this just “torture porn”?
Nope. You would think that a movie with this plot and these elements would be an erotic thriller or a horror movie, but it’s neither. It’s a dark and cynical look at global espionage, which is a far cry from James Bond’s gadget-filled romps. When Jennifer Lawrence in the nude is not an erotic moment, you can bet there’s a lot of other stuff going on. It’s a cerebral film and it gives you a lot to think about, especially when considered in context with current events if you can get through the moments where you never stop wincing.
6. How are the performances?
Uniformly excellent. Jennifer Lawrence provides a layered and nuanced portrayal of a young woman in over her head and grimly determined to come through it alive and with some part of herself still intact. Even when her face is an impassive mask, you can see the repressed anxiety and cold calculation going on behind her eyes as she tries to stay a jump ahead of both her adversaries and her superior officers. Joel Edgerton is the solid and basically moral guy he usually plays, a CIA agent whose biggest failing is a tendency to care about people in a business that considers them disposable. The two work well together but make no mistake, this is not a love story. It’s not even a romantic interlude in an action movie. It’s just a little human connection in the midst of a lot of manipulation and deceit, peeking through as two people try to manipulate and deceive each other. Or do they?
The rest of the cast is right there with them. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Uncle Vanya, a high-ranking Russian SVR agent, and his menace is not at all diminished by the fact that he bears some resemblance to a young Vladimir Putin. Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Mary Louise Parker, and Thekla Reuten all turn in stellar performances in memorable supporting roles. Joely Richardson is given very little to do as Dominika’s chronically ill mother.
7. How are the action sequences?
If you’re looking for spectacular Mission: Impossible stunt sequences, you’re going to be disappointed. What little action is to be found here is quick, brutal, close-up, hand-to-hand, and painful looking. When somebody survives a knife-fight, they wake up in a hospital, and a punch to the face leaves bruises and swelling that lasts. Since nobody’s jumping off buildings or flipping a car off a bridge, there’s a real-world sensibility to it, a realization that people get hurt or killed here. We’re playing for keeps, and it brings a background hum of anxiety to even the quietest scenes. You are constantly aware of just how stressful these people’s lives are.
8. Do I need to have read the book?
I haven’t read it, so I suppose not. But Jason Matthews’ novel won a couple of awards and got good reviews, and even the CIA liked it (I’d link to their review, but it’s spoilerific), so you might want to take a whack at it anyway. His 33-year career with the agency apparently prepared him well to be a novelist. There are two more in the series, Palace of Reason and The Kremlin’s Candidate, if you want to get ahead of the next movie.
9. When is the best time for a bathroom break?
Even though your kids aren’t there (right?), the movie does clock in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, so that Big Gulp may catch up to you. Red Sparrow unfolds at a deliberate pace, and there are so many double- and triple-crosses going on that you could pretty much go anytime you like and probably not miss anything really important that you can’t pick up on later through context. And there’s a good chance you could miss a flaying or some other medieval horror. I think the best time is just after she meets her roommate at the apartment in Budapest.
10. Is there anything after the credits?
No, thank God. I was really nervous that I’d see somebody drawn-and-quartered to wrap things up.