Bird of Prey: Lawrence Tries a Red Scare with Gritty Espionage Thriller
Like the Marquis de Sade outfitted for a contemporaneous tangent of the Cold War, director Francis Lawrence reunites with his Hunger Games headliner Jennifer Lawrence for Red Sparrow in what plays like the torture porn version of their previous YA properties in another exploration of insidious governments run amok, crushing its citizens as necessary in the constant struggle for political supremacy.
Adapted from the novel by ex-CIA operative Jason Matthews, the near two-and-a-half-hour thriller twists and turns like a snake coiling around store bought prey, but has a hard time overcoming some serious distractions, such as plenty of thick, caricature courting Russian accents wending around the strict English language screenplay from Justin Haythe. Like most of Francis Lawrence’s high-profile, star-studded Hollywood films, from I Am Legend (2007) to three Hunger Games titles to Water for Elephants (2011), his latest is unfortunately another empty-headed bauble despite a strikingly brutal approach which ratchets up the plot’s dependence on the misogynistic tendencies of the Russian machine through extreme physical, sexual, and mental anguish for its heroine, the likes of which we haven’t seen since some choice exploitation headliners from the 1970s (think the travails of Pam Grier’s Coffy, Dyanne Thorne’s Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, or Camille Keaton in I Spit on Your Grave).
Following a tragic accident which would claim her promising career with the Bolshoi, ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is suddenly without any prospects, which means her mother (Joely Richardson) will be unable to receive the medical attention she needs. When her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) unwittingly draws her into Russia’s political and dangerous underbelly, Dominika finds herself in a catch-22 and either be eliminated by the state or be trained as a ‘sparrow’ and master the arts of sexual manipulation in a school run by Matron (Charlotte Rampling). Excelling in the program, Dominika is tasked with infiltrating CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), currently corresponding with a top level Russian mole. But Dominika’s assignment offers certain possibilities she couldn’t have imagined.
The set-up of Red Sparrow is a potent damnation of Russia’s seedy netherworld—it’s unfortunate state censorship would deny the possibility of material like this ever being made there, as it creates a striking lack of cultural authenticity which makes Red Sparrow’s credibility suffer (something which also hobbled something like 1983’s Gorky Park, a famous landmark featured in an early sequence here as well). Lawrence’s brooding ballerina gets outfitted with English actress Joely Richardson as her vaguely ailing mother and Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts (yes, playing an Uncle named Vanya) as her incestuous minded uncle, the man responsible for all her troubles.
Scenes of bloodthirsty vengeance sets up an incredibly cruel and hard-hearted saga, which segues into the Sparrow School, run by a tyrannical Charlotte Rampling (a long way from her serene headmistress in Never Let Me Go, 2010), who with delightful vehemence announces an uncomfortable training regimen for the Sparrows. People are merely “a puzzle of need,” and it’s their responsibility to become the missing piece and manipulate their targets for information before disposing of them. Once the Sparrows lose their ability to be useful to the State, they are routinely exterminated. Like the extension of the Nazi regime in Pasolini’s infamous Sade adaptation Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), this hearkens back to the type of gritty cruelty most films outside of Holocaust reenactments tend to sidestep.
Eventually, Red Sparrow falls prey to its own glaring faults, which includes the surprises it wants us to find clever without seeming to realize it backs Dominika into a rather obvious corner. Some third act maneuvers featuring Mary-Louise Parker and Jeremy Irons don’t help matters much (especially when a wrap-up montage is used to assist audiences who presumably forgot all of Dominika’s painstaking travails) and despite some harrowing tribulations, Lawrence is more a feverish Alice in Russialand than master of machinations (had this the same infrastructure as the Bolshoi bashed ballet dancer in Angelin Preljocaj’s Polina, 2016, then perhaps its genre elements wouldn’t seem so preposterous). Interesting for some extreme choices but more often than not a bit turgid, Red Sparrow plays like a missed opportunity at something more malicious and subversive than it ends up being.