Red Sparrow

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons

Director: Stephen Lawrence

Writer: Justin Haythe


With the recent explosion of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the subject of feminism has never been more public and pertinent. A greater demand is being made for the increase of female representation in cinema, for more stories about female empowerment, and for more honest depictions of patriarchal oppression. Wonder Woman is one recent movie that pulled this off wonderfully with its inspirational story and strong, compassionate protagonist that brought a distinct and heretofore lacking female perspective to the Hollywood blockbuster. The inevitable downside is that some of the films that rise up to champion the feminist cause will end up being either bad films, bad feminism, or both. Red Sparrow is such a movie; it has marketed itself as an erotic feminist thriller about how female sexuality can be used both as a weapon against men and as a means of emancipation and it falls short of the mark.

Red Sparrow is set in modern-day Russia, where it is somehow simultaneously 2018 and 1962, and depicts the physical and psychological ordeals of Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a former prima ballerina whose career has come to a sudden and gruesome end, leaving her alone and unable to provide for her ill mother Nina (Joely Richardson). She is approached by her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking member of the Russian secret service, who offers her work as a spy. After agreeing to what was supposed to be a one-time job that ends up going badly, Dominika is faced with a harsh choice. She must give herself completely to the Russian state and become their tool, or else she’ll be executed. Thus Dominika is sent to the Sparrow School where she is taught the ways of seduction and espionage.

Her instructor is the pitiless Matron (Charlotte Rampling) and her classmates are all young men and women who were similarly hand-picked for their cunning, resourcefulness, and physical attractiveness. They are told that their bodies now belong to their country and that they must use them to seduce those who hold the secrets that the government desires. Dominika is made to endure humiliating trials and traumatising attacks, including exposing herself before the class, watching hours of violent pornography, and being prepared to sexually service men of all deviancies and perversions such as paedophiles and rapists, in order to become the perfect spy. Her first assignment is CIA agent Nick Nash (Joel Edgerton), an operative with an asset, code-named Marble, in the Russian government. Dominika is to seduce Nick and learn the identity of the mole.

The movie is graphic and violent by design but too much of it feels sordid and exploitative. Obviously the point of portraying such ordeals is to demonstrate Dominika’s fortitude and it does so on the logic that the more uncomfortable the movie can make us feel, the more we will want to root for her. To the film’s credit, it is very good at making these scenes uncomfortable. I remember wincing at least twice, once during the opening ballet performance where Dominika’s leg is broken and again in a later scene where a character has their skin flayed. The problem however is twofold. For one thing, the movie is so unrelentingly and blandly violent that these scenes become monotonous and gratuitous. Secondly, there is something deeply unsettling about the way the movie lingers on the violence as it is committed on women, as opposed to men. There is one scene where Dominika sneaks up on a man and woman in the shower and attacks them with a blunt object. The man is dealt with promptly, relatively cleanly, and with little attention brought to his nakedness. The woman is fully exposed and her beating is brutal and prolonged. It’s not the violence itself that’s disturbing but the way that the violence is so specific to the female victims and their bodies, as in another scene where we see the mutilated corpse of a woman lying in a bathtub.

I cannot help but think that this is the result of having a male director at the helm. While I don’t agree with the notion that men are incapable of creating great feminist cinema (I would cite Mad Max: Fury Road as a recent example), it seems to me that Stephen Lawrence was unable to escape the male gaze he possesses and that it has proven detrimental to the story he was trying to tell. This is evident in the film’s use of nudity as well, as in one scene which is supposed to be empowering for Dominika and humiliating for one of the male characters. Here Dominika is completely nude while the man remains fully clothed and, even though the man is the one who is supposed to be totally vulnerable and defeated in this moment, the camera cannot help but fixate on Lawrence’s nudity, keeping one of her breasts in view the whole time. Once she gets to work on her target, Dominika sports some skimpy clothing, including an absurdly revealing swimsuit, which makes sense given that she’s trying to make herself look irresistible to Nick, but the way that the camera leers at her, inviting the audience to ogle her, tells us that the film is more interested in her body than it is in her experiences.

Even with the movie’s problematic relationship with feminism taken out of the equation, Red Sparrow is by all means a dull, uninspired film. Its 140-minute runtime is exhausting given the sheer banality of the plot and punishing given the unyielding prominence of its violent content. Lawrence and Edgerton have so little chemistry in their scenes together that they could both have been played by mannequins. Whatever intrigue there is between them at the start dissipates as soon as the masquerade between them is dropped, which happens far too soon, and the romance that follows is as passionless as it gets. When the question is raised over whether either of them will betray their country for the other, neither can muster enough affection to justify their seeming vacillation. Occasionally there is a British star with a vaguely Russian accent to liven things up such as Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling or Ciarán Hinds, but there is only so much any of them can bring in their limited screen time.

This was a difficult film to get through and not for the intended reasons. There is clearly some kind of feminist statement being made as we watch this woman use her sexuality to combat the misogynistic adversity she faces and to create an identity for herself to replace the one imposed on her by the patriarchy, but it gets lost in a movie that has no idea how to portray physical and sexual violence against women in an introspective, tactful way (and I say this as a man; I cannot even imagine how grotesque these tortuous scenes must feel for a woman). The movie is as soulless as the hackneyed caricature of Soviet/Putinist Russia it portrays; all we get is viciousness, misery, and the barrenness of a harsh winter. It is a consistently unpleasant film throughout and it offers no reward or fulfilment for those who manage to endure it.

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Midnight Special

Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard

Director: Jeff Nichols

Writer: Jeff Nichols


With the blockbusters of today being almost entirely made up of sequels, prequels, adaptations and reboots characterised by massive scale, abundant special effects and action-driven stories, it’s interesting how closely our modern independent movies resemble the blockbusters of 20-30 years ago. When watching Midnight Special for instance the influence of Steven Spielberg was unmistakable. If Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. were to be released today, films that feature original character-driven stories, few (if any) movie stars, and strong but restrained use of special effects, it’d be difficult to imagine them being advertised as blockbusters. The advances in technology over the past few decades means that independent filmmakers like Jeff Nichols now have the means to make these kinds of films. Not only is Midnight Special impressive visually but it is also a smart, intimate story about faith and parenthood.

The film starts off ambiguously with a man called Roy (Michael Shannon) hiding in a hotel room with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). We learn that the boy possesses otherworldly powers and was recently liberated by his father from a religious cult who is now wanted by the government. Roy reveals that he must take his son to a certain place by a specific date despite not knowing why or what will happen. All he knows is that it is a mission of paramount importance. Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) the leader of the FBI investigation into this case learns of the boy’s powers and seeks to learn more of the mystery behind their quest. Along the way Roy enlists Sarah (Kristen Dunst), Alton’s mother, for her help with this endeavour. With only days before this unknown event is supposed to take place, Roy will stop at nothing to protect his son and to help him fulfil his calling whatever it may be.

I was unsure of what to make of this film after seeing it mainly because it is such an ambiguous movie. Although the mystery surrounding Alton’s abilities and quest serves as the dramatic crux of the movie, very few answers are provided. This isn’t necessarily a weakness because sometimes the mystery is the point. The real question is whether the mystery has stimulated you or just left you confused. After seeing how the film ended I was initially left dissatisfied by the lack of an explanation. Even though I saw what happened I still didn’t know what the actual purpose of Alton’s mission was or what was actually accomplished. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I was missing the point. After all one of the vital themes depicted in the movie is faith, an idea that is defined by the unknowable. By asking what Alton’s mission was I might as well be asking what was in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. That’s not what the film is about. This is a film about how people react to that which they don’t understand, the bond between a parent and their child, and the search for meaning and purpose. Such themes are ambiguous and mysterious in nature and whatever answers there are to be found must be discovered by the viewers themselves. That is how faith works.

It is clear that Nichols is putting a lot of faith in his audience as very little is spelled out for them. For example in the opening minutes of the movie it isn’t actually stated that Roy is Alton’s father. It doesn’t need to be because Nichols trusts that we can figure it out ourselves based on their body language. That’s the sign of a good visual storyteller. The imagery in this film is so clear and effective that Nichols is able to escape making use of exposition that might have otherwise stolen away from the mystery. Little is explained and yet so much is felt. It also helps that the performances, particularly Shannon’s, are strong enough that the qualities of the characters are readily apparent through their gestures and expressions. One needs only to see how Roy holds and looks at his son to know that he is going to do everything in his power to keep Alton safe.

The ambiguity and elusiveness of Midnight Special will definitely put some people off; there is no way around that. It is a film that needs to be analysed and questioned in order to be appreciated. It is certainly a strange film as it delves deeply into the supernatural and the unknown. Those who watch Midnight Special looking for straight answers are not going to find them because it isn’t that kind of film. It is a contemplative exploration of mysterious themes that is supposed to raise unanswerable questions. The beauty is in the mystery itself. I can certainly say that this film has stimulated me on an intellectual level, but I did also feel a little underwhelmed on an emotional level. Although I remember the characters and did follow them all the way through, I never felt like I really got to know them or was able to form an attachment with them in the way that I did with Spielberg’s films. Still Midnight Special is an engaging, thoughtful film that stirs the imagination and stimulates the mind.

★★★★