Red Sparrow is the nastiest movie I’ve not quite watched in quite a while, and probably the nastiest thing I’ve ever watched with so many Oscar nominees in it. Not the worst thing, since you can’t throw Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Joel Edgerton and Mary Louise Parker at a problem and still get a completely worthless movie, but definitely the nastiest. Partly it’s the relentless horribleness of all the characters, and partly it’s the gratuitous torture which keeps cropping up. The thing about the torture is that it’s very unpleasant while not making any sense, but the whole movie has that problem. It may simply be that putting Irons and Rampling into the same movie just breaks reality.
Vladimir Putin was probably going to hate this no matter what happened, since it makes Russia look like a miserable slum full of murderous sociopaths, but just in case the script wasn’t enough, they cast Matthias Shoenaerts as the most horrible villain in the whole piece and went out of their way to make him look as much as possible like a younger Putin. He winds up getting shot in the head, and the only thing bad about that is that it doesn’t look like it hurt anything like enough. Lots of other Russian men get murdered horribly, and they all had it coming. This movie doesn’t like Russian men. Or Russian women, much. Or anyone. I think it likes Jennifer’s mum, and we have to try to like Jennifer because she loves her mother, but even with Jennifer Lawrence turned up to 11, Domenika’s hard to like, or even understand.
It’s a weird time to be watching a movie like this. Men being horrible to women because they’re sexist exploitative pigs hits a nerve just at the moment. A movie about women being trained to exploit those tendencies might look like a counterpoint, but since they’re only doing it to meet the needs of even worse men for power and money, it’s really not. Throw in the fact that Russian espionage is back in the news in the worst way just now, and the whole thing’s an endless parade of headline bait, if only you could bring yourself to care what happened.
In one way, I did care what was happening; J-Law’s always got a kind of vulnerability to her, and when the movie is staying quiet, there’s an air of creeping menace and exploitation which left me on edge about what might happen next. Then the movie turned the yecch meter up to eleven in the back half, and turned into narrative gibberish with gory distractions. A character gets tortured to death off screen and left in a bathtub with bits hanging off her in all directions for no apparently rational reason. And then there’s a big torture scene where Joel Edgerton (playing the world’s worst CIA agent) gets tied up and part skinned by a psycho. On the one hand, we've been told that offing CIA agents is a bad idea that the President, so how is this suddenly a thing that the KG-Used-To-Be is doing? On the other hand, Domenika has set this up, joins in, and then switches sides in the middle of the misery to kill the torturer. As long as she was going to do that, why wait? She could have dropped the bad guy at literally any moment from the beginning of the scene, and probably got a lot less cut up the earlier she went for it. There must have been reasons for this, but they’re never explained, never even hinted at.
In the last few minutes of the movie, everything is supposedly wrapped up with a set of flashbacks which show that Domenika’s been playing a long game to nobble her tormentors and secure her own safety. All I will say is it’s not this.
So there you go. It’s horrible, but at least it doesn’t make any sense. Yay, Red Sparrow, a movie which made the real world news seem like more fun.