Red Sparrow: spies, sex, evil Ruskies, and feminism

Summary: Red Sparrow has everything. Of course, the critics cannot see much of it through their ideological blinders. They overlook the mystery at its heart. What they see, they hate. You should see it anyway, for fun and for its insights about America. This is the third film in Film Week at the FM website.

“You sent me to whore school.”
— Lawrence’s iconic line in the film. She is the Rey of cold war spies.

Poster for "Red Sparrow"

 

Review of Red Sparrow.

Starring Jennifer Lawrence.

“Take back control.”

 

I read critics’ reviews before seeing the film. How sad that their thick ideological blinders prevented so many of them from seeing the film (TomatoMeter: 50%). Red Sparrow provides a fascinating cinematic experience while providing a mirror to more clearly see our culture.

Act One: Moscow

“There is no such thing as luck. …We create our own fate.”
— Said by the spymaster to Lawrence. One of the key lines in the film.

The first Act thrilled me more than any new film has since Captain America (2011). Wonderful cinematography made me feel as if I were in Russia watching Moscow’s high culture, its stately government offices and shabby apartments — and taking a long drive out into the harsh countryside to State School Four. The visuals are nicely enhanced by the music.

The characters quickly grabbed my interest. Matthias Schoenaerts is Vanya Egorov, the masterful but slightly creepy Russian spy-master. Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika Egorova, the innocent young woman both pushed and seduced towards the dark side of her character. Their relationship drives the film’s plot, and I eagerly watched to see it  unfold — with her life and soul at stake.

The film opened, as good drama should, in medias res (in the midst of the action), skipping the boring exposition and mood-setting that film schools appear to teach (when watching indie films, always begin at the three minute mark; you do not miss anything significant). The events in Act I skillfully foreshadow the course of the film.

Jennifer Lawrence in "Red Sparrow."

Act Two: Whore School

“Don’t give him all of you. That’s how you survive.”
— Good advice given to Lawrence. Good advice for everyone working in Corporate America.

The scenes at what Lawrence accurately describes as “whore school” began well enough. But the film quickly began its slow decay into Cold War  propaganda. Lawrence is told “Your body belongs to the State.” That is odd, since the real Russia today is a Darwinian capitalist state. Also, the plot goes full grrl-power, and bonkers, beginning with the rape scene in the shower. Her victory is odd; the staff’s response is bizarre.

This Act has some of the best dialog in the film. Such as this, suggesting that one of the writers knows history (Russia led the Holy Alliance which dominated Europe for much of the 19th century). Perhaps Russia’s leaders dream of such days returning.

“The cold war did not end. It shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces. The West has become weak, drunk on shopping and social media, torn apart by hatred between the races. As a result the world is in chaos. Only Russia is willing to make the sacrifices required for victory. We must once again place ourselves at the head of nations. From this day you will become “sparrows”, weapons in a global struggle for power.”

Jennifer Lawrence
Red Sparrow photocall. Getty Images.

Jennifer Lawrence

“Find beauty in the human delusion that the pleasures of the flesh will make us whole again.”
— Wisdom from State School Four.

The casting and acting are excellent. As usual, Jennifer Lawrence steals the show. Her understated style perfectly fits the character. Only in the last third do we see her show emotions, which she does convincingly.

But the script gives her little to work with. Her motives remained obscure to me, even at the end. Perhaps that is deliberate.

A love story drives the plot — her romance with a noble CIA agent, Joel Edgerton as Nate Nash. She is a sizzling 28-year-old. He is a beaten-up 44. Critics described their romance as “unconvincing” and “chilly.” That is obtuse and misses the point. Does she love him? Or is she using her natural skills and training to manipulate him, as she does everybody else? The ending is powerful and ambiguous. Watch the the film and decide for yourself.

The writers wisely omitted the superpower given her by Jason Matthews in his book (Red Sparrow). In it she has the ability to see people’s emotions, a mutant form of synesthesia. Her intelligence and strength of character have greater significance without such a fantastic ability.

But looking at her character points to the film’s great weakness.

This CIA agent is not James Bond.

Romance in "Red Sparrow"

A feminist parable

“Jennifer Lawrence has said that showing her body in Red Sparrow helped her get over the horrid invasion of her privacy that occurred when a hacker stole and distributed private nude photos of hers. Good for her. It’s completely up to Lawrence as a woman and actor to decide when she chooses to show her body.

“Unfortunately, Red Sparrow is not as empowering for women as it was for Lawrence. This spy adventure is not a power fantasy for women, but a sexual fantasy for men who like to think they’re feminist. (Spoilers: they aren’t, and neither is Red Sparrow.) …the clothing in the film is clearly intended to appease the Male Gaze, and not the fantasy of fashion-inclined females.”

— “‘Red Sparrow’ Is Soft-Core Porn For Faux-Feminist Bros” by Kristy Puchko.

Many critics shared Puchko’s condemnation of Red Sparrow‘s violation of political correctness. This is quite daft, since the film is a feminist parable. The pitch to the studio was probably “Let’s do a Cold War spy flick version of The Last Jedi!” Lawrence plays Rey, but without the Mary Sue. Their thick ideological blinders prevented most critics from seeing this. Red Sparrow is an addition to the growing genre of female killers, along with Atomic Blonde and La Femme Nikita. And female super-spies, such as Angelina Jolie in Salt (2010) — which has themes similar to that of Red Sparrow.

Unfortunately, the films loses its momentum as the go girl theme becomes dominant.  In every confrontation between Lawrence and a guy, she wins. Sometimes by intimidation. Sometimes by force. Sometimes by deus ex machina, because She intervenes. The film’s conclusion is foreordained: grrl-power triumphant. As usual in films and on TV (but unlike life), she initiates all kisses, and is more sexually aggressive than her CIA boyfriend.

“You are better than any of us.”
— Said to Lawrence by a senior Russian spymaster.

There are two ways to show the hero’s exceptional strength in fiction. First, by showing strength greater than the average or more-than-average other characters. Second, by diminishing the other characters. Red Sparrow does the latter. The key male characters lose IQ points during the film as if they’re swilling mercury instead of vodka. In a key scene near the end, the 41-year old master spymaster acts like a smitten teenage boy.

Torture as art

“{See the} steamy shower scene where a totally nude Dominika is attacked. Why is she attacked? Because her fellow cadet wanted to rape her. That’s the second rape scene in the film that involves its heroine. And each time, audiences are given the chance to ogle Lawrence. First in her underwear, then as she’s thrown on a bed, begging for mercy. Later, she’s totally naked and wet. …

“In one torture scene, Lawrence is naked, bound, and drenched in presumably freezing water. As she screams, we’re given a view of her ass, and the side of her breasts. In another scene, she’s ruthlessly attacked, and a close-up of her agonized face focuses on the blood dripping from her lip.”

— Kristy Puchko, ibid.

Lawrence suffers, as is de rigueur for the hero in action films. Bogie gets beaten up as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. Ian Fleming lavishly describes the suffering inflicted on James Bond in every book (Casino Royale was the only film that showed this element of the books). Captain Archer routinely gets beaten up in “Star Trek: Enterprise“. Deeks and Sam undergo lengthy torture in NCIS: Los Angeles S05E01, “Ascension”. So of course women prove they are as tough as men in this, as in all things. Kathleen Turner gets a good hard beating as the hard-boiled dick in V.I. Warshawski. Demi More get tortured in G.I. Jane. And Lawrence gets tortured. You already know if she breaks.

There are many scenes of rape and torture; their intensity increases as the film rolls on.

Red Sparrow - hot scenes

Sensationalism!

“…males in the theater squirm with guilt for not averting their (male) gaze.”
— David Edelstein at New York magazine imagining the reaction of betas watching Red Sparrow.

Lawrence’s beauty provides much of the interest in Red Sparrow, covering much of the tedium in the last third. Feminists have conflicting judgements (not opinions) about the morality of using women’s bodies as objects of interest in films. Typical of feminists, they do not ask Lawrence’s opinion.

As with so many feminist action film, the erotic scenes are not erotic.

It is fun to see the critics trying to decide if RS shows grrl-power, an actress/secret agent successfully using her body — or if it is a sexist film exploiting women. Most of them respectfully use “whore” in quotes, although it is a literally accurate description of Lawrence’s job in this film.

Cold War propaganda

“{I}t’s obvious their only visual goal is to portray the former Soviet Union as a wasteland of misery and abuse lorded over by cretinous, unhealthy men. …Russia is a shitty place and communism reduces human bodies to objects owned by the State.” (Dom Sinacola at Paste.)

The Russian men are #meToo caricatures, most of whom are brutes who enjoy rape. The evil Ruskies are cold, cruel, untrustworthy, and probably psychopaths. Killing is their first solution to problems. The CIA agents are mild, non-violent, and noble. This is as cartoonish as anything from the 1950s.

Jennifer Lawrence in "Red Sparrow"

The remainder of the film

In the last third of the film the plot becomes filled with holes, like Swiss cheese. But it builds to a climax — too subtle for the critics — about her relationship to Nate.

Red Sparrow has something for everyone. A hot and scantily clad Jennifer Lawrence, go-girl women’s empowerment, an ambivalent ending, and lurid tales of evil Ruskies. It is an entertaining flick.

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Trailer for Red Sparrow

 

8 thoughts on “Red Sparrow: spies, sex, evil Ruskies, and feminism

  1. After absorbing the good American/bad Russian ending of Red Sparrow straight out of the 1950s, I was struck with the focus on Russians turning women into evil instruments of sexual deceit. I then resumed my catchup of Season 4 of Homeland, where Carrie Mathison was seducing a 19 year old Pakistani boy only to send him to his death in a futile attempt to kill the Taliban bad guy.

    Our guy/their guy – yes. Good guy/bad guy – not so much.

  2. Nice review FM.

    First, it’s worth pointing out that the screenwriters made an important change to the ending, despite faithfully following the book for most of the film. (Having said just that, I suspect you can guess what they changed.)

    Second, in terms of titillation, I thoroughly agree that these critiques are way overblown. In fact, having read a few reviews before seeing the movie, I was surprised by how tame it was. The torture scene that so bothered Puchko seems quite comparable to a similar scene in one of the newer Bond films in which Daniel Craig is tortured naked for an extended period of time. While I’m sure that some people find both of these scenes arousing, it seems a bit silly to me to get worked up about that. That said, the filmmakers were surely well aware that they would get crap about “male gaze”, as stupid as it is, so they could have tried to handle it in a more sophisticated way. For example, one of my favorite movies of the past decade is The Handmaiden, which received some criticism along the same lines, but I think more intelligent critics recognized the emptiness of such complaints because of how smart the movie was: the plot itself served as the ultimate rebuttal to those who would caricature the film as softcore porn. One gets the sense that Red Sparrow tried to do something vaguely similar but just didn’t pull it off that well.

    Finally, another comment on the adaptation. In the novel a lot of the dramatic tension revolves around Nate’s conflicted feelings about sleeping with Dominika; he is a careerist, and well aware that romantic involvement with an agent not only violates Company policy but compromises his objectivity and effectiveness as a handler. That conflict has a ring of truth to it, despite the fact that (as you aptly point out) the book and film are overtly propagandistic in their rosy portrayal of CIA. Although there’s not much to be done about the lack of chemistry between the two leads, I think a greater emphasis on the “forbidden love” aspect of the relationship would have considerably elevated the romance in the movie.

    For me the movie had a lot of flaws but ultimately outperformed my somewhat low expectations; I’d give it a B/B+. Fine cinematography and a pretty good score partially compensated for weaknesses in the script.

    1. Sam,

      The review was already too long, and I didn’t want to discuss details — but I thought that the film left Lawrence’s relationship with Nate on an ambiguous note. Did she have feelings for him? Would she work for the CIA as a double agent? My guess was no and no. There was no motivation for either, and she used successfully Nate for her own ends.

      She is staggeringly beautiful 28 year old woman. He is a fit but beaten-up 44 year old guy. Of course she was using him. He screwed up at the start of the film. And his relationship with her is just another screw-up — which his co-workers warned him about (they have correctly evaluated him). Another display of the manipulative genius that her uncle spotted long ago.

      If she loves Nate in the book, perhaps that’s an old ex-CIA guy’s fantasy.

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