'Red Sparrow' Review: Prestige Political Thrills With an Exploitation Bent

Red Sparrow

In rekindling the Cold War studio film, ‘Red Sparrow’ brings a little ’70s exploitation to the political thriller.

Russians. They make the best movie villains. For decades, Hollywood has used the Cold War as the staging ground for sweeping narratives about patriotism and discipline. Filmmakers have often used the discipline of Russian operatives as a stark contrast to the individualism of American soldiers: the value our country places on the importance of the individual is often presented as our greatest moral strength and, as a result, our most significant tactical weakness. So while Russia may be in the real-life headlines for all the wrong reasons, there is more than a little comfort in seeing our beloved British actors once more playing the Red Menace onscreen. These are dangerous guys worth keeping around.

Red Sparrow is the story of Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a dancer blackmailed into the service of the state after taking her revenge against a company member who put her in harm’s way. Dominika’s uncle, Vanya Egorova (Matthias Schoenaerts), uses his position in the Russian cabinet to offer Dominika a deal. Train to become a Red Sparrow – a notorious group of spies who are taught to sacrifice body and soul in service of Mother Russia – and use her newfound skills to identify an American informer working at the highest level of the Russian government. What follows is a game of political cat-and-mouse, as Dominika uses her relationship with disgraced CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) as a means to play both sides against the middle.

It’s become somewhat fashionable to knock Lawrence these days, primarily for reasons that have nothing to do with her skill as an actress. No, the Russian accent she sports in Red Sparrow is not always perfect, but to single out that element of her performance is to do a great disservice to everything else she offers onscreen. Lawrence has a knack for internalizing conflict, playing characters who have retreated so far into themselves – as Dominika’s mother would say, secreting away some small sense of self as an act of resistance – that their true selves remain obscured to the audience’s eye. As a result, she and Edgerton are perfectly matched in Red Sparrow: Lawrence is far too skilled to make Dominika your prototypical damsel-in-distress, and Edgerton is content to play Nash as the Golden Retriever of the intelligence industry (well-intentioned and impossibly loyal, albeit not particularly bright). It’s not enough that you’re never sure whether Dominika is manipulating Nash to complete her mission; you must also never really know which mission Dominika is trying to achieve.

This espionage-cum-romance angle is only one part of Red Sparrow‘s appeal, however. While the film will undoubtedly warrant comparisons to the sort of thrillers dreamed up by the John le Carrés of the world, there’s also an element of revenge cinema woven tightly into the film’s narrative. As a member of the so-called Sparrow School, Dominika is physically and mentally violated by her classmates and superior officers alike. The rest of the film focuses on her ability to reclaim and weaponize those abusive acts against the people who would do her harm, making Dominika something of a modern successor to the heroines of ’70s exploitation films. This places Red Sparrow as an odd marriage of the political and the violently transgressive; those looking purely for Jennifer Lawrence’s answer to Atomic Blonde may find themselves watching something entirely unexpected – and, for many, unwanted as well.

While your mileage on that front may vary, what should be evident to all is how carefully the film has been backed into its thrilling conclusion. Red Sparrow thoroughly obscures Dominika’s endgame; there comes a point two-thirds in when you realize either outcome – the betrayal of her country or the betrayal of her American handler – would make absolute sense for the character and her motivations. Most spy thrillers would have you believe that their protagonists were playing a game of political chess all along, but Red Sparrow is one of the rare movies to offer its audiences entire glimpses at several possible outcomes, each favoring a different party, each promising a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the viewer. Whatever Dominika decides will be her decision and her decision alone.

Featuring a duo of impressive performances – three if you include Mary-Louise Parker‘s unexpectedly hilarious turn as an American official for sale – and balancing its methodical pacing against the occasional burst of graphic violence, the best reference point Red Sparrow may just be a movie like David Cronenberg‘s Eastern Promises. Much like that film, Red Sparrow shows how the lines between crime and justice can be twisted up in the Russian state-system. Unlike Cronenberg’s film, however, this time we’re treated to a woman enacting her revenge. Either way, like Annihilation before it, Red Sparrow seems destined to be the wrong movie for audiences looking for a bit of genre escapism. Woe be to the Sunday afternoon matinees populated by those who neglected to give even the most cursory glance at the RottenTomatoes quotes.

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Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.