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Red Sparrow is an intriguing film about celebrity, disguised as a pedestrian spy tale

Jennifer Lawrence stars in a role that echoes her own life in the movie star spotlight in fascinating ways.

Red Sparrow
Jennifer Lawrence plays the red sparrow of Red Sparrow.
20th Century Fox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A big determination of whether you enjoy the new Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Red Sparrow will be just how self-aware you think the movie is.

To be frank: There is a lot of sexual violence in this movie, both overt scenes of rape and attempted rape and far subtler forms of verbal abuse and harassment. Lawrence’s character, Dominika, is told repeatedly that her body is not her own, and at one point, a female superior tells her that her body belongs to the state. (She’s a Russian spy.)

A lot of this is handled clumsily. Dominika is expected to just shake off her assaults, and when she confronts one of her assailants in a later scene, she mostly humiliates him, in a way that ultimately leaves the audience a bit mystified and confused as to her true aims rather than delivering easy catharsis. Plus, if you’ve ever seen the FX series The Americans, which delves into the blurred lines between sex, exploitation, and assault that are inherent to some lines of espionage, none of this is going to seem particularly new.

But — stating up front that I am, indeed, a man, who can’t possibly know what it’s like to live a life like Dominika’s — I found something purposeful in all of the above, in Red Sparrow’s examination of what it means to live in a body that is trained and weaponized. Dominika’s true passion is ballet, but an early, brutal accident leaves that vocation unavailable to her. So she turns to an uncle, heavily involved in the Russian government, and finds herself enmeshed in spycraft. What’s more, she’s good at it. But this is not who she is, not who she would prefer to be.

All of this made me read the film less through the lens of its story (adapted from a 2013 novel of the same name) or its direction (by Francis Lawrence, who directed Jennifer Lawrence through several Hunger Games films), and more through the lens of its star.

Red Sparrow is, in some ways, a movie about being Jennifer Lawrence

Red Sparrow
Domenika attends “sparrow school” in the middle of nowhere.
20th Century Fox

There’s a shot about a third of the way through Red Sparrow that involves the first onscreen nudity of Jennifer Lawrence’s career. But Francis Lawrence stages the shot in such a way that it obfuscates his star. Another actor blocks the camera’s view of her, reminiscent of when strategically placed objects are used to block the sorts of nudity that might cause a film to receive a stricter rating. (This tendency was memorably satirized in The Simpsons Movie and Austin Powers.) But the shot in Red Sparrow isn’t wholly blocking the R-rated nudity. It’s only standing slightly in the way. You can still see something, just not everything.

I say this not to be prurient but to point out that Red Sparrow is one of the first movies Jennifer Lawrence signed onto after the 2014 celebrity photo hack, which included naked photos of her. The event sparked a conversation about what constitutes a sex crime and why getting to see a naked photo of someone without their consent is a violation — things that seem easy to understand but also had to be discussed at length, as with all matters involving online privacy.

In a 2014 interview with Vanity Fair, Lawrence said something that is dully echoed by Red Sparrow’s “your body belongs to the state” line: “Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this. It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting.”

And even when Red Sparrow doesn’t work — and plenty of it doesn’t — it carries through this idea of the human body no longer belonging to the mind occupying it. Sometimes that can be a great thing! We can rigidly train ourselves to perform great physical feats of athleticism or art (the way Domenika does as a ballet dancer). But it’s often far too easy to be seen by some large, faceless entity — by a government or a corporation or a horde of faceless online hackers — as the sum of your physicality, rather than the person you actually are.

Domenika is beautiful, so she is forced to become the “sparrow” of the title, a woman trained to use that beauty to find the weak spots in other human beings and exploit them to get what she needs. She may not want to do this. She might not even like doing it. But it’s also what she’s paid to do, what her country requires of her. In that instance, does she give her consent to everything that happens to her, sexual and otherwise? Can a sex act she’s completely in control of still be a violation because she’s doing it at the behest of others, rather than herself? Is anything real possible in that scenario?

Red Sparrow is an adult movie — but not in the way you’re thinking

Red Sparrow
Joel Edgerton plays an American spy who maybe loves Domenika. Or maybe it’s all just a game!!!!!
20th Century Fox

None of this will be new to fans of the spy genre, but by wedding one of the world’s biggest stars to a surprisingly brutal and forthright consideration of these ideas, Red Sparrow puts its text and subtext on parallel tracks. Francis Lawrence shoots the film as a grand tragedy, intercutting Domenika’s ballet accident with the escape of an American spy played by Joel Edgerton whom she will eventually meet and, perhaps, love. (It’s to the film’s credit that you’re not quite sure how she feels about him even at the end.)

The romance is there to ground the movie, I suppose, and Lawrence and Edgerton have a kind of cool chemistry that suggests not red-hot lovers but two people who enjoy trying to get one over on the other. But it feels superfluous in the face of everything else Red Sparrow is trying to do, all of the things it wants to be about. It’s an adult movie not in the sense that it features violence and sexuality but in the sense that it demands you engage with it to determine if you even liked watching it.

The school where Dominika trains is filled with many other attractive young Russians, some of whom have joined the program willingly and others who were forced into it. They’re all being trained to turn their bodies into weapons in ways beyond physical prowess. It seems, when Domenika leaves the school around the midway point to become a full-fledged sparrow, that this plot thread might come back, but it never does. There’s just a school in the middle of nowhere in Russia, where human beings are being taught to think of themselves no longer as themselves but as objects for consumption by something beyond themselves.

Then again, don’t we all have to fight against this, against the idea that our lives belong to someone other than ourselves? The world is filled with forces trying to tell you that what will help you achieve self-actualization is [insert experience, product, or philosophy here] because you might not trust the answers within yourself. And even beyond that, is there a better metaphor for becoming a famous actor, for using your gift to attain a level of fame where so many other people think they own a piece of you?

I was most impressed with Jennifer Lawrence’s performance by the film’s end, when it became clear that even after Domenika seemed to have declared her true allegiance to either Russia or the US, I still wasn’t sure I trusted her. If Red Sparrow is a movie about the things it purports to be about, like the blurred lines around issues of consent in the espionage game, then it’s a misfire at best and horribly exploitative at worst.

But as a movie about being Jennifer Lawrence, about having everyone think they understand you simply because they’re looking at you all the time, about trying to hide your real life behind ineffective filters, it’s much more compelling.

Red Sparrow opens in theaters everywhere Friday, March 2.

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