Jennifer Lawrence is putting herself through hell these days. I obviously can't speak to her personal life—hope everything's going well, girl!—but on screen it's been rough going. Last fall, she starred in Mother!—her then-boyfriend Darren Aronofsky's symbolic mess—and was battered by a hellish throng of worshippers. Not to mention a hellish throng of critics.
Now, she's in Red Sparrow, a Russian spy thriller in which her body endures all sorts of horrors, one worse than the next. You thought The Hunger Games was brutal? Those movies seem like a breeze compared to this.
So, is Red Sparrow an over-the-top piece of torture porn? Or is it a deliberately provocative look at an oppressive regime where women's bodies are exploited for political gain? I'm still debating those questions hours after seeing the film, but I'd venture to say it lands somewhere in between. Either way, the movie presents sex as a grim business, and the way it's used against its protagonist is what motivates her.
Before attending a press screening Thursday, journalists received a note from director Francis Lawrence begging us not to reveal any of the twist and turns. I'm certainly going to keep this largely spoiler-free, but how you ultimately judge Red Sparrow will likely depend on your opinion about its final act. I do think it's fair to say, however, that we meet Dominika Egorova (AKA Lawrence) when she's a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi. A horrible injury—documented in gruesome fashion—forces her to retire from her dance career, and she's blackmailed into a web of espionage by her creepy uncle.
His machinations eventually lead her to what is known as Sparrow School, where she's trained in the art (?) of using sex to extract information from political enemies. Despite its cute, alliterative name, this facility is a monotonous grey nightmare where the students are taught how to prey on people by a harsh matron (played by Charlotte Rampling) who in turn preys on them. The recruits watch porn dispassionately. They're made to strip in cold rooms. It's humiliating, and Dominika is constantly on guard, trying to protect herself from the worst of it.
But, of course, the heroine also has a talent for reading people, so she's tasked with securing information from a CIA agent—the hilariously named Nate Nash (played by Joel Edgerton). Deceptions are layered on top of deceptions. I won't tell you more except to say that the true mission, the one most worth getting invested in, is whether Dominika will liberate herself from her impossible circumstances. She's constantly fighting for agency in a world that refuses to give her any.
From start to finish, Lawrence maintains a steely demeanor so it's hard for anyone, including the audience, to read what her character's ultimate intentions are beyond her own survival. And, if you can get over Red Sparrow's compulsory need to shock, that's where you may start to find it entertaining. As I'm sure you know by now, Lawrence is good at her job, and even when saddled with a sometimes unfortunate Russian accent she demands your attention. Dominika is not an coolheaded ass-kicker in the vein of, say, Charlize Theron's Atomic Blonde spy, but in Lawrence's hands she's not passive either.
In some ways, Red Sparrow feels like it was ripped from another era and not just because of its bend towards exploitation. It's strange watching a movie about relations between the U.S. and Russia that takes place in the unspecific now, but doesn't deal with the Trump of it all. And there's an overall air of uneasiness when it comes to the idea of verisimilitude; the shifts between the vomit-inducing violence and pulpy thriller silliness are jarring, but the movie never truly picks a side.
Which brings us back to Red Sparrow's purported sexiness. The marketing would like you to think this is the hottest thing ever. It's not. In fact, it's far from it. Dominika must use sex as a weapon, while the threat of sexual violence against her is constant. Scenes of actual pleasure are few and far between—and even those yield questions. Though I'd venture to say that Lawrence and Lawrence (meaning, Jennifer and Francis) are aware that their film tackles sex in its most revolting and abusive form, the movie's still trying to be edgy and maybe even titillating. And honestly, that doesn't sit particularly well.