There are movies for adult audiences and then there are movies for Adult Audiences. In every way imaginable, Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow is a movie for Adult Audiences and, after a delay, it has finally made its way into theaters. Originally scheduled to open in November of 2017, Fox delayed the film in an effort to keep it and Murder on the Orient Express from cannibalizing each other. Both films are adult-oriented, sophisticated entertainment and it’s hard enough for one film of that ilk to succeed on its own, these days, much less two from the same studio at approximately the same time. Orient Express did rather well for itself and now it’s time for Red Sparrow to give it a go in what is an unusually crowded February/March release slate.
All her life, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) worked towards her dream of becoming a Russian Bolshoi ballerina. After having achieved that dream, the life she loves is taken away from her through an unfortunate mishap. With no other options for Dominika, her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) wrangles her into his Russian spy program, where she is trained to be a Red Sparrow operative whose primary tactic is using manipulation techniques to attain information. When she is put in the path of American C.I.A. agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), the loyalties of everyone come into question, not only by others, but also by themselves.
The cinematic marketplace has been a little lacking in the mature adult-themed entertainment department recently, as the prestige Oscar nominees have begun to trickle out of theaters. Red Sparrow is a solution to that problem on all possible fronts. No matter what adult theme one has been craving, it’s at least touched on by this film and, in some cases, the themes are addressed in great detail. To say too much would be spoiling, but the difference between “adult audiences” and “Adult Audiences” is singular: maturity. Red Sparrow is a film that targets mature adults, not simply anyone who is physically over the age of seventeen.
If one recoils at the sight of the undressed human body – whether it be male or female – they are not mature enough for this movie. If one condemns every vile action that occurs in every film ever produced because they are under the impression that the filmmakers are condoning such actions, they are not mature enough for this movie. If one has little patience for dialogue and the laying of a narrative foundation in the pursuit of building to a worthwhile payoff, they are not mature enough for this movie.
Director Lawrence presents this story (based upon the book by Jason Matthews) with the assumption that the audience can handle it. It isn’t a pleasant story. It teases the audience with suggestions of pleasantness and then yanks it all away, just like Dominika’s career as a ballerina. Something that Dominika learns during her training is how to find what people are wanting and be the one who offers it to them. But she understands that to give it to them without a catch results in the mark being fulfilled and losing interest. Francis Lawrence understands the same about his audience. You want sex? Here it is. But none of it is sexy. You want violence? You got it. But it’s realistic, brutal, and painful – unrelenting in its refusal to shield the viewer from the very palpable consequences of such actions.
Francis Lawrence entices the audience with what they believe they came for and then delivers on what they actually did: a gripping, unpredictable story. We’ve seen traces and elements of this film elsewhere. Dominika’s origins are remarkably similar to those of Marvel’s Black Widow. And there will undoubtedly be comparisons to last year’s fantastic Atomic Blonde. After all, both are unapologetic, female-driven, international spy thrillers with a penchant for pulling no punches and going for the jugular. But Blonde steered itself more towards pure entertainment while Sparrow opts to throw in additional subtext and narrative layers. Neither approach is wrong; they just set the films apart from each other.
For me, the true fun in the film is in the complexity of the characters and their motivations. It’s impossible to determine at any given time who is telling the truth, who is lying, who is playing who, what anyone’s true endgame is, or what piece of the puzzle will be provided next. This is not an action film, though there are action scenes when the story requires them. But the mindgames being played by all of the major players make the film just as exciting as an action film and significantly more surprising than most. The cast handles this challenge with seemingly effortless dexterity – particularly Lawrence, who is so good that she might receive another Razzie nomination for her performance. After all, that’s apparently what happens when those who have accomplished little become jealous of those who are the top of their field. And Lawrence is at the top of hers and she continues to remind us why with another stellar effort in this film as she plays a character who finds her true calling where she not only least expects it, but also where she least desires it. The adage that states that life is what happens when we’re making other plans is exactly what Dominika comes to understand.
I suppose Red Sparrow isn’t for everyone. It’s only for audiences who don’t just say they want original, sophisticated moviegoing experiences, but also actually mean it. After subjecting myself to The 15:17 to Paris, almost anything would be enjoyable, but I feel confident that Red Sparrow is an objectively excellent choice for anyone who wants an engrossing tale that won’t sugarcoat the story or handhold the viewer. Red Sparrow tells it like it is, not how we want it, and that’s exactly the way it should be in adult entertainment.
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