There are movies that you love and there are movies that you hate, but every once in a while, we have a movie that leave us thinking, "What the hell did I just watch?" The kind of movie that leaves us baffled and confused about whether we liked or not and Red Sparrow has definitely proved to be that polarising type of a film. This hard and gritty spy thriller sees star Jennifer Lawrence reunite with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, and this time, they are not aiming at the teenage demographic (run along kiddies, this one's for the grown-ups!).
Based on the award-winning novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow follows Dominika Egorova, as she faces a bleak future ahead of her following an injury that ends her career as a prima ballerina. Her shifty uncle enrols her at Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service that trains exceptional young people to use both their minds and bodies as lethal weapons to lure and terminate their prey. Following her aggressive and sadistic training, Egorova emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow and is entrusted to make contact with a CIA agent who is protecting a mole within the Russian Embassy, but the further she delves into her mission, the line between enemy and ally become blurred.
Despite being based on a novel, this in some way is tipping its hat towards the old cold war thrillers while also having that updated gritty, unsettling tone that is reminiscent of some of David Fincher's most acclaimed works like Seven and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There is absolutely no denying the fact that this is a nasty film where blood and flesh is on full display, and to this reviewer, it wasn't used exploitatively in any way shape or matter, but instead is utilised as means of creating discomfort, and it's admirable that everyone involved (especially Francis Lawrence and Jennifer Lawrence) chose not to shy away from that dark subject matter. Despite being rated 15 in the UK, this is definitely a high-end 15 rating! Composer James Newton Howard delivers a suspenseful score, while the cinematography by Jo Willems is stunning, however, the main driving crux of the movie is down to its performances, and for the most part, they are exceptional. Jennifer Lawrence is both stunning and raw, once again proving to be a fierce acting force of nature unafraid of taking risks, just like she did in last year's controversial mother!
But equally as compelling is Joel Edgerton as the undercover agent who's trapped within an enclosing web of deceit and lies, while Matthias Schoenaerts is exceptionally slimy and charismatic as the manipulative uncle. There are performers like Charlotte Rampling and Jeremy Irons who are having a blast, while Mary-Louise Parker looks as though she has wandered in from a completely different movie and seems very out of place as a result. This is a competently made movie with great production design, but the whole pacing of the movie feels very lumpen and sluggish. It's understandable that the filmmakers intended for this to be a slow-burn thriller, but the film's runtime feels dragged out with whole sequences that could've easily have been excised. Also, despite delving into some heated subject matter, the overall experience will probably leave viewers very cold as there is little emotional investment to latch onto to keep us engaged with the drama. We know very little about who Dominika is, where she came from before she's thrust into this harrowing experience and whose side she's really on, so it's hard for us to get an understanding of her because of that.
No matter what you make of it, Red Sparrow is an odd, peculiar beast of a movie that, like its main protagonist, you don't really know what to make of it. It's nasty when it needs to be, tense when it is required to be, delivers mostly excellent performances, and has a superb musical score and solid cinematography. However, the pacing is incredibly sluggish, it's alienating on an emotional level, and much like mother! it will certainly divide audiences over its dark subject matter as evident by its critical reception. But despite its shortcomings, you can't help but admire the fact that both Francis Lawrence and Jennifer Lawrence wanted to make a film that wasn't pandering to a mainstream audience, that didn't appear to be tampered by the studio system, and wasn't afraid to be nasty and uncomfortable and adult when it needed to, and in this current age of mostly mainstream cinema, that's commendable. To quote Ian Holm's Ash from Alien: "I admire its purity."
RED SPARROW / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: FRANCIS LAWRENCE / SCREENPLAY: JUSTIN HAYTHE / STARRING: JENNIFER LAWRENCE, JOEL EDGERTON, MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS, CHARLOTTE RAMPLING / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10