Review: Frigid, dark, brutal ‘Red Sparrow’ takes flight

Not for the faint of heart, the Jennifer Lawrence spy thriller pushes limits of sex and violence

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

As cold, dark and unforgiving as the Russian winter, “Red Sparrow” is a brutal yet hugely satisfying spy thriller.

Be warned: It’s vicious, and it’s tough. A mainstream, R-rated studio picture hasn’t pushed the boundaries of sex and violence this far since David Fincher took on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and “Red Sparrow” is designed to not only provoke but make viewers squirm in their seats.

It earns its shocks, though, and balances them against a taut spy story that keeps you on edge until its final frames.

Jennifer Lawrence is fearless in the role of Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballet dancer turned government agent, trained to use her body to get what she wants out of men. She is sent to Sparrow School, justly referred to in the movie as “whore school,” where her teacher, referred to simply as Matron (Charlotte Rampling is so icy you can practically see her breath when she talks), pushes her to extremes and coaches her to completely detach her mind from her body. Her techniques, including public humiliation and forced sex scenarios, don’t leave a lot of room for positive reinforcement; “your body belongs to the state,” students are told.

Joel Edgerton plays Nate Nash, a CIA agent working in Russia. Early on he’s made when a mission goes bad and he gets sent back to the U.S., but he convinces his bosses to send him back to Russia where he attempts to turn Dominika. A tangled web of spy intrigue is spun.

Jeremy Irons plays a high-ranking Russian government official; Irons has been doing strong work in parts like this for what seems like forever, and “Red Sparrow” offers him an especially choice role. Matthias Schoenaerts (“A Bigger Splash”) is Dominika’s uncle who pushes her into the spy life, and Mary Louise Parker turns up as an American Senator trading secrets in Russia. Both are quite effective.

But “Red Sparrow” is Lawrence’s show, and she navigates the role with steely grace and unwavering courage. Justin Haythe’s script calls for Lawrence to be a human ice cube and she delivers, though there’s plenty ticking underneath her icy veneer.

Dominka is singularly driven by her desire to get her sick mother (played by Joely Richardson) the health care she needs, and the script perhaps skimps in this department; the mother would seemingly be a too-easy target to exploit (or eliminate) as soon as Dominka’s loyalties are called into question.

Otherwise, director Francis Lawrence — a music video whiz who teamed with Lawrence on the final three “Hunger Games” titles — keeps “Red Sparrow” tense as character motivations and allegiances shift and are drawn anew. It’s a cold world, and everyone is in survival mode.

“Red Sparrow” is not for the squeamish; there’s a shower rape scene that is tough to stomach and an extended torture sequence that could have people running for the exits. It’s an envelope pusher. It’s more than shock and awe, though, and there’s a twisty network of U.S.-Russia relations to unravel and plenty of strong surprises waiting to be unwrapped.

Beyond the pain, there’s pleasure.

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‘Red Sparrow’


Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity

Running time: 140 minutes