Yes, I vuz ballerina now I am sexy whore-spy. You vant to make fuck in exchange for military secrets?”
Is Red Sparrow kidding with this crap? This is like a cheap porn scenario, and not even the Hollywood gloss with which it is presented can elevate it above that. No, scratch that: the Hollywood gloss makes it worse. All the big-name Western actors playing Russians, speaking English with terrible Russian accents… and looking bored yet also self-conscious at the same time. What a recipe for that most contradictory of combinations: Red Sparrow is risible yet also tedious. Laughing at it doesn’t offer any enjoyment, though. It just makes you sad for the waste of talent involved, and the waste of your time and attention when you could have been doing something productive like finally busting through that really tough level in Candy Crush.
This is, Lord help us, yet another example of Hollywood men believing they are woke and feminist because while they have given us a story reeking of salacious misogyny and abuse, that’s totally okay and we should be cool with it because their female protagonist gets to wale on and even kill dudes. Jennifer Lawrence’s (mother!, Passengers) Dominika Egorova may get beat up, tortured, almost raped (twice), and actually raped, but she sure shows men, don’t she? Please enjoy some titillating J-Law nudity and sashaying in lingerie while she embraces being a Strong Woman in a way that does not actually threaten the status quo. (I mean, a woman gathering her strength in the face of a man who wants to take advantage of her would definitely imagine how her ass looks in black lace from the perspective of a third person who is not actually in the room behind her, but which just so happens to replicate the perspective of the audience, right? That’s normal. All women think like this.) She may get perved on by much older men, including a male blood relative, but it’s absolutely fine because they are bad guys and you, gentleman adjusting your balls in the multiplex, are off the hook because of course you are a good guy.
(I swear to god, I think the guy down the row from me in my afternoon multiplex screening was touching himself — there was a very distinctive rubbing noise. I’m not kidding or exaggerating. It was all I could do to stop myself from yelling at him to get the fuck out of the theater.)
I have said this many times before, and it looks like I have to say it again because no one is listening: If your movie that you think is critiquing misogyny is indistinguishable from misogyny, you are doing it wrong.
Red Sparrow is basically the Black Widow movie we’ve been waiting for SINCE FOREVER and will now not get because when this one flops and is trashed by so many of my fellow critics, Hollywood will say that nobody wants to see movies about lady spies. We do! Just not like this. (ETA: We finally got the Black Widow movie in 2021.) There is more life and female power and clobbering of sexist expectations of women in our brief introduction to Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow in 2012’s The Avengers — in which she completely owns a bad guy who thinks she is his prisoner — than in the entire overlong (two hours plus) of Red Sparrow. There is no humor, no self-awareness of its own absurdity — there is just turgid solemnity and sadism.
After a career-ending injury, Bolshoi ballerina Egorova is given little choice but to accept the invitation of her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts: The Danish Girl, Far from the Madding Crowd), a honcho at the SVR, the Russian equivalent of the CIA, to become a sexy whore-spy who will use her wiles and her body to get whatever information the Kremlin needs from whomever it needs it from. (There are boy sparrows. But we don’t get to see them subjected to repeated mental, emotional, and physical humiliation just so they can prove that they don’t deserve such abuse. It’s almost as if the self-worth of men is inherent, and isn’t something that needs to be defended.) Her first target after sparrow school is CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton: Bright, It Comes at Night), who is so one-dimensionally noble and upstanding that I am 110-percent convinced that he is a Marty Stu stand-in for author Jason Matthews — who is, what’s this, a former CIA agent! — upon whose novel this is based. Something about a mole at SVR who is working with Nash and the CIA, and Uncle needs the mole’s name, blah blah blah. There’s never any suspense in anything that happens here, partly because the narrow path of the script doesn’t leave a lot of room for leeway, but mostly because America Good, Russia Bad. Even Russians can see this!
There is no good reason for this movie to exist. Screenwriter Justin Haythe? His last two scripts were A Cure for Wellness (flop) and The Lone Ranger (huge stinkin’ colossal flop) — how does he get more work? Director Francis Lawrence directed three of the four Hunger Games movies, but now it’s clear that the power of those movies — and the power of Jennifer Lawrence in them — springs from novelist Suzanne Collins’s potent storytelling. (Maybe we could just stop men from making movies for a while? Let them cool off a little, reflect on their mistakes?) How did anyone convince the likes of Charlotte Rampling (45 Years, The Sea), Ciarán Hinds (Justice League, Silence), Joely Richardson (Snowden, The Messenger), and Jeremy Irons (Their Finest, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) to deign to appear here? I get why Mary-Louise Parker (Red 2, Howl) agreed: hers is the only astereotypical character… and she’s the only one among the cast who escapes with her dignity intact.
And yet: “There are no accidents,” Egorova’s uncle says, reflecting on how her accidental (or was it? dum dum DUM) injury put her in the path of whore-spy-dom. And that is true of movies as well, and of Red Sparrow. Many many people thought it was Good, and signed off on, the notion that an appropriate way to exalt and honor the humanity of an oppressed woman was to diminish and dehumanize her for your entertainment. This wasn’t an accident. This is the entertainment sea we swim in.