By Andrew Cripe, Movie Critic
‘Red Sparrow’ is an interesting cinematic failure. It should be admired for trying to show audiences the dark, soulless, gruesome side of espionage, but it shoots itself in the foot by being a star-vehicle for a shockingly disinterested Jennifer Lawrence.
Her performance is disappointingly blank and lifeless, dragging what’s good about the rest of the film into crippling mediocrity. The failure of her performance hurts the film in ways it never recovers from, but it undeniably has moments of intensity that rescue it from being totally forgettable.
It is about a ballet dancer in Russia, Dominika (Lawrence), who shatters her leg during a show and can no longer financially support her ill mother.
Having no other choice, she accepts an offer she can’t refuse from her politically powerful uncle, played by an empty Matthias Schoenaerts (usually a genius in films like ‘Bullhead’ and ‘Rust and Bone’) that ends up embroiling her in a silent war between Russian Intelligence and the CIA. She is trained to become a ‘Sparrow,’ a codename for women who have been trained to use their bodies to seduce enemies of the state and extract sensitive information from them.
Director Francis Lawrence, who previously collaborated with J-Law on three ‘Hunger Games’ films, depends on her to carry this dense, incredibly lengthy thriller (140 minutes), but for reasons we may never understand, she is completely tuned out.
The most effort she puts into becoming Dominika is delivering a quiet Russian accent; after that, she’s in Blank City.
But when the film focuses on scenes involving the other, much more interesting characters, like the heartless, chilling Sparrow teacher played by Charlotte Rampling, or the CIA agent Nate Nash played by Joel Edgerton (an actor you couldn’t pay to give a bad performance), Francis Lawrence’s directorial skill shines.
He creates a truly sinister atmosphere, supported by Jo Willems’ bleak cinematography, draping the film in a suffocating, depressing grey color. At its best, the film’s layers of paranoia and backstabbing break the viewer down, leaving them vulnerable for the film’s extreme scenes of bloodshed.
The most striking thing about ‘Red Sparrow’ is its violence. This is one of the bloodiest big-budget films in years. It has what is easily the nastiest knife-fight since David Cronenberg’s ‘Eastern Promises’ (2006), and there are other set-pieces that would make Quentin Tarantino shudder.
It is sadistic, but it is ironically during these scenes of death that the film has the most life. While difficult to watch, director Lawrence finds an interesting line between showing too much gore and implying the worst of it.
He focuses on characters fighting for their very existence rather than trying to just gross the audience out.
All this said, the movie orbits around a leading performance that is broken. Any avid film goer knows Jennifer Lawrence’s power.
She gained major attention in 2010 for her breakout performance in Debra Granik’s ‘Winter’s Bone,’ earning herself an Oscar nomination at just 19. She quickly became a household name and won an Oscar two years later for ‘Silver Linings Playbook.’
Today, she is beloved by millions and respected by many critics, and deservedly so. Her previous performance in Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Mother!’ was one of the most underappreciated of last year. That role demanded everything of her, and she gave it her all. ‘Red Sparrow’ is the farthest of cries from that sort of effort.
‘Red Sparrow,’ as a whole, had the potential to be excellent, and at points the viewer can see flashes of brilliance. The atmosphere is thick and involving, and the violence is sure to leave many viewers shaken.
It attempts to take an intimate, frightening look at what espionage and state-sanctioned violence does to the human soul, like a cross between the TV series ‘The Americans’ and Alan Pakula’s ‘The Parallax View’ (1974), but it put too much of its trust in an actress that didn’t care enough to help the film become an instant classic.
As it stands, this is a ‘Curiosity-Watch,’ which is code for rental.