Movie Review: Spy flick ‘Red Sparrow’ has kompromat on Jennifer Lawrence

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Red Sparrow' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Once an Oscar darling for “Winter’s Bone,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” it’s a bizarre turn of events that Jennifer Lawrence won’t be competing at the Academy Awards this weekend but rather at the Razzies, honoring Hollywood’s worst.

Her nomination comes for Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” a visionary work that wove a genius Biblical allegory but took audiences for granted with a disgusting surface-level experience.

Her latest effort, the graphic spy thriller “Red Sparrow,” sadly continues that trend, where J-Law is taking chances with admirable gusto but is sadly trapped in off-putting framework.

Set in modern-day Moscow, Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) suffers a career-ending leg injury on stage. Upon her rehab and recovery, she is recruited to “Sparrow School,” a Russian intelligence service where she is trained to use her body as a weapon. Her first covert mission is to target and seduce first-tour C.I.A. agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton).

Based on Jason Matthews’ 2013 novel adapted by Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road’), “Red Sparrow” suffers from bad timing. The film’s trailer debuted last September, but after the Harvey Weinstein scandal rocked Hollywood in October, 20th Century Fox delayed the release from November to March, essentially burying the movie in the bustle of Oscar weekend.

You can see why, as the first third of the script puts J-Law in as many compromising sexual positions as possible. We’re forced to watch a graphic rape scene where Lawrence endures rough penetration by her spy target. This is no isolated scene to prove a point; it’s the start of a domino effect of sexual humiliation as her Sparrow instructor repeatedly urges her to strip. Eventually, she does so defiantly in a strategy of reverse psychology on an eager colleague.

The film wants to have it both ways, trying to showcase a strong female protagonist who rebels against the perverted program, but presenting it in a way that feels exploitative. It feels like a male-gaze sex fantasy by director Francis Lawrence, who directed Katniss Everdeen in three of the four “Hunger Games.” No, there’s no relation between the two Lawrences, but there is an odd incestuous subtext with the hero’s on-screen uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts).

In addition to the graphic sex, the violence is the “torture porn” offspring of “Saw” and “Atomic Blonde.” There’s a vicous crime of passion in a locker room, a bloody discovery in a bath tub, a brutal beating in an interrogation chair, and a villain flaying the skin off a victim. It’s sad to see such talents as Lawrence, Edgerton, Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling in the muck.

Still, beyond any of these more salacious moments, the film’s biggest problem is that we don’t buy the basic setup. It’s hard to believe that such a world-famous ballerina could sustain such a high-profile injury, then go undercover as a spy without getting recognized. As Lawrence’s Russian accent slips in and out, the air of authenticity frustratingly fades scene by scene.

Such flaws are a shame, because the film has a lot going for it. Lawrence directs the opening sequence as riveting parallel action that plays like “Black Swan” meets “Jason Bourne;” Alan Edward Bell’s editing provides slow-burn pacing; James Newton Howard’s music recalls the best of Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock; and Joe Willems’ cinematography captures the elegant interiors and lush urban exteriors as we traverse London, Vienna and Budapest.

This international intrigue is the biggest missed opportunity, as the themes should make for a stinging political commentary. There’s no better time than 2018 for a tale of Russian moles penetrating the C.I.A. There are even scenes of Russian operatives trumping up dirt on U.S. officials by catching them in sexual or financial corruption to later be used as kompromat.

This was the serious angle that the studio hoped to present as it premiered the film here at the Newseum last week in Washington D.C. If handled with a little more nuance and little less exploitation, “Red Sparrow” could have been the zeitgeist film of our time. Instead, it’s another example of a film whose potential was dashed by lowest-common-denominator impulses.

Oh well, I’m still rooting for Lawrence to have a long and successful career. She remains one of our most fascinating talents — all at the age of 27. She just has to keep her head down and work her way through this rough patch. If “mother!” is up for the Razzies this weekend, there’s a chance that “Red Sparrow” will do the same next year. Keep going, J-Law. This too shall pass.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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