An outraged Jennifer Lawrence saying, “You sent me to whore school!” in a Russian accent is the defining moment of the spy thriller Red Sparrow, a movie that would have felt very different when it was filmed a year ago than it does now.
Lawrence’s Dominika is a Russian ballerina in present-day Moscow who, after getting Nancy Kerrigan-ed by a rival, is forced to become a spy for a Russian intelligence service on pain of having state-provided health care withdrawn from her sick mom. Dominika’s gig is very different from what I’ve seen in any other spy movie, though: “Sparrows,” as the trainees are known, are sent to the ominous State School Four, where they study pornography, oral sex, getting undressed on command, etc. Recruits are expected to master psychological operations and learn to exploit the enemy’s weakness, which means climbing into bed with him.
“Whore school” is as good a name for it as any, and in Dominika’s case earning her bachelor of dark arts degree means lots of scenes of her stripping nude, getting raped, fighting off a rape, being tortured while naked, etc. So it’s a movie that sells exploitation under the guise of condemning it. Lawrence’s consent to participate in this project doesn’t make it less grueling to watch.
Couldn’t any number of Hollywood women describe their experience as being put through ‘whore school’?
These days it’s hard not to hear eerie echoes in the plot: Does not Star School Four operate much like Hollywood with gray proletarian uniforms? Charlotte Rampling, playing the authoritarian head of the school known only as “Matron,” orders students in her classroom to undress in front of the others in order to break them down for the task of having sex with whomever the state wants them to have sex with. Matron doesn’t much differ from all of those agents and publicists, many of them women, who told their naïve young sparrows, “Go see Mr. Weinstein, he’s waiting for you in the bunga-bunga suite.” Many such actresses must have thought it was in their best interest to simply go along with what seemed to be expected of them. Couldn’t any number of Hollywood women describe their experience as being put through “whore school”?
That Lawrence has agreed to be so degraded on film again (she was also tortured in last fall’s Mother) is disturbing, not “empowering,” as she keeps claiming in interviews. Acting need not be synonymous with being put through dire situations. How many times have we seen Meryl Streep getting raped in showers over the course of her career?
The gratuitous and exploitive nature of the nudity is a shame because the movie is otherwise a cracking good spy yarn. Its solution to the problem of the end of the Cold War is simple: Ignore it. Matron tells us the Cold War never ended — it simply shattered into a thousand pieces, and that feels truer than ever these days. Russia wants to regain its stature as a world leader, and it doesn’t have a lot of scruples about how to do it. (It also doesn’t have a lot of competence, but acknowledging that would make Red Sparrow a farce: “Agent Sparrow: You vill plant zuh Facebook meme of Satan arm-wrestling Jesus!”)
Guided by her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is a high-ranking spook, as well as a sinister general (Jeremy Irons), Lawrence’s Dominika heads to Budapest to seduce a CIA agent, Nate (Joel Edgerton), who was working with a mole inside the Russian state when he was forced to leave the country. Dominika’s role is to find out which Russian turncoat was secretly feeding information to Nate. This involves stealing an asset — the chief of staff (Mary Louise Parker) of a U.S. senator — from a fellow Russian agent and leads to some of the most gripping psychological suspense in the movie. Parker makes the most of her few minutes of screen time, joining a parade of great character actors — Ciaran Hinds, Bill Camp, Douglas Hodge — who give what could have been campy dialogue the chilling gravitas it needs to work.
Typically for spy thrillers, there’s a tangled plot that leaves you guessing about which side Dominika is actually working for at any given moment. Is she seducing Nate or falling for him? Is she using the Russians against the Americans or vice versa? But — and this is refreshing for the genre — the resolution is perfectly clear. When it’s time to tie things up, characters just march in and say things like, “So, now you know, I’m the mole.” The final few minutes of score-settling are a delight, as the director Francis Lawrence (whose credits include the last three Hunger Games movies but is unrelated to Jennifer Lawrence) and screenwriter Justin Haythe lay down each piece of the puzzle until the whole picture emerges. Red Sparrow turns out to be such a smartly crafted work that it’s a shame it thought it had to be prurient to hold our attention.