The 400-Word Review: Red Sparrow
By Sean Collier
March 9, 2018

Moose and squirrel.

An inexorable pull seems to plague nearly every espionage thriller. No matter how slick the packaging, no matter how unconventional the story structure, whatever the stakes might be, the central conflict in the vast majority of spy flicks is a bit of the old who’s-zooming-who. Where do our players’ true allegiances lie? Who’s being honest and when? A double-agent? A double-reverse-agent? A single-agent (not a thing) pretending to be a double-agent to root out other double-agents?

These traps are especially pervasive when the powers represented are those dusty old rivals, Russia and the United States. To believe Hollywood, high-profile, elite masters of spycraft defect from Moscow to Washington, and vice-versa, with clockwork frequency, presumably earning extra frequent-flier miles for last-minute bookings.

Red Sparrow is the latest example of this setup, devolving from a troubling study of dehumanization in wartime to another dose of whose-side-is-she-on. The film, which reunites unremarkable director Francis Lawrence with his “Hunger Games” series heroine, follows ex-ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) to a remote, Soviet-era school for seduction.

This setup, though frequently unsettling, is deeply compelling. Dominika’s promising ballet career ended due to an injury at the hands of one of her fellow dancers; after a delicious sequence of revenge, her lecherous uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits her for very specialized training. At a black site, Dominika is instructed on sexual power by a stony headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) as her fellow students struggle with the personal implications of their work.

It’s a novel concept, and the first hour or so is loaded up with violence, nudity and imposing Soviet architecture, all of which do a fine job of maintaining attention. Regrettably, the intrigue is apathetically discarded around the halfway mark when Dominika needs to get information on a CIA operative in the Ukraine (Joel Edgerton). You can work it out from there. Is she falling for him? Is she pretending to fall for him? Is he working her? Is she loyal to mother Russia or infuriated at the way her homeland has used her?

You won’t care about the answers, but it’s Jennifer Lawrence, so you’ll keep watching. The film is another testimony to her charisma and skill, qualities which fill the vacuum created when the story abdicates its duties. A fine supporting cast — believe it or not, Jeremy Irons is in this movie, as is Mary-Louise Parker — helps, but Red Sparrow is fundamentally a one-woman film.

My Rating: 6/10

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at