By Noah Gittell
“Red Sparrow” is a type of movie Hollywood doesn’t make much anymore: a genuine star vehicle. There are no superheroes or apocalypse scenarios in it. No big action set pieces and very little computer-generated imagery, from what I can tell. All that really props this film up is its star Jennifer Lawrence, whose face is on the poster and who is in nearly every scene. She isn’t even required to do much serious acting. Her presence is the point, and that’s what makes a star. “Red Sparrow” is just a passable spy movie, but as a riff on the allure of Lawrence and the ingénues who have come before her, it is a fascinating work of art.
When we first meet Dominika Erogova (Lawrence), she is the prima ballerina of the Moscow Ballet. After an onstage accident ruins her career, as well as her ability to care for her ailing mother, she is lured into a secret spy program for beautiful young men and women. Beyond the usual weapons training, the young comrades are schooled in the art of seduction. The icy headmistress, known only as Matron (Charlotte Rampling), trains her students in sexual psychology and desensitizes them through public humiliation. She wants them to see their bodies as mere objects of the state.
The film is all too happy to comply. After Dominika graduates, she puts her talents to use incapacitating a powerful government official in his hotel room. These early scenes are both titillating and horrifyingly cold, and they confront viewers (especially male ones) with the objectification of its star. Any Hollywood ingénue is subjected to the commodification of her body, but Lawrence, who was the most famous victim of a massive celebrity phone hack in 2014, has suffered more than most. Dominika’s body was once employed for art, but when it’s co-opted by an institutional power, it’s easier to see the American actress playing her.
In fairness, this synergy of star and character might not be entirely intentional, and Lawrence’s inability to create a fully realized character could be to blame. As an actor, her strength lies in her stoicism, which worked beautifully in the rural noir “Winter’s Bone” and almost as well in the “Hunger Games” films. In “Red Sparrow,” it works when we are seeing her as Jennifer Lawrence. However, when the plot’s machinations begin, her vapid performance is a chasm that fails its twisting script.
Assigned to seduce and extract information from CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), Dominika quickly ignores her training and falls in love. Or does she? The script by Justin Haythe keeps us on our toes, and Dominika’s allegiance seems to switch with every scene. When she gets caught by the Russians, she claims to be faking her love for Nash. When the Americans start to mistrust her, she says her allegiance towards Russia is a ruse. It would seem that Dominika is just trying to survive, but that leaves her as an entirely passive character, and Lawrence’s reaction-heavy performance, which relies more heavily on instinct than intellect, never gives her any agency.
Meanwhile, other threads tug at our imagination but never quite capture it. The script teases us with political relevance, especially the subplot involving a drunken U.S. Congressional staffer who is selling secrets to the Russian government. Like much else in “Red Sparrow,” it’s just a red herring. Familiar character actors with weathered faces show up in very minor parts – Jeremy Irons, Bill Camp, Mary-Louise Parker, and Ciaran Hinds – each of them doing much more than Lawrence does just by showing up. Like a life preserver in a still sea, we feel that, if only we could hold onto them, surely they would take us, and the film, to high ground.
Instead, we are tethered to Lawrence, who does just enough to keep the film afloat with an acting style that could best be described as the path of least resistance. She never does anything. She just is. She can’t quite convince us that Dominika is real, but when the film is at its most engaging, it hardly matters. After all, the hero is Lawrence, and the villain is Hollywood. The only mystery left in “Red Sparrow” is where we fit in.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue