For a review of “Red Sparrow,”
With her bottle- blonde locks, facility with a knife and dour Eastern European playground, Jennifer Lawrence’s “Red Sparrow” is seemingly the 2018 version of Charlize Theron’s “Atomic Blonde.” But that’s where the comparisons end. While the ’ 80s Berlin- set “Atomic Blonde” was a violent, colorful, sexy and darkly absurdist film, Russian spy thriller “Red Sparrow,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is epic, methodical and unfortunately plodding, jettisoning thrills for a stultifying moodiness.
The film is based on the novel by retired CIA spook Jason Matthews, who racked up over three decades of experience in the field. In the story of “Red Sparrow,” poor but politically connected ballerina Dominika ( Lawrence) is drawn into a shadowy spy world by her high- ranking SVR officer Uncle Vanya ( Matthias Schoenaerts) when her dance career is ended with a “Showgirls”- style sabotage. He uses her as bait for one of his targets, and with a dead businessman’s blood on her skin and no way to support herself or her ailing mother, she accepts his offer to train as a “Sparrow” — spies who use sex and seduction to psychologically manipulate and collect information from their targets.
Dominika quickly flames out at Sparrow school — she’s simultaneously resistant and compliant to the sadistic headmistress played by Charlotte Rampling. But she proves her mettle with a would- be rapist, destroying him physically and mentally. Turns out she’s a natural, so they send her off to Budapest for her first gig, to gain the trust of a U. S. spy named Nate Nash ( Joel Edgerton) who’s been receiving intel from a mole buried deep in the ranks of Russian security.
Francis Lawrence’s filmmaking in “Red Sparrow” is as seductive as its heroine, and he creates gorgeous compositions in a palette of red and gray, knit together with seamless editing. The film is beautiful to look at, but it’s empty and meaningless. The sensational images add up to a whole lot of provocation, but there isn’t a shred of substance to be found. Matthew’s book offers promises of authenticity, but what comes through in Justin Laythe’s script and the casting choices — there are no recognizably Russian actors on screen and bad accents abound— is just a hollow caricature of Russia, wrapped up in a plot that’s both overly convoluted and dull.
It’s difficult to enjoy watching Dominika seduce and destroy because she’s acting against her will, forced to be a Sparrow to keep her mother cared for. In “Atomic Blonde,” Theron’s Lorraine was a professional who did her job and had fun with it. Dominika, despite hermysterious talent for this line of work, is ultimately a victim, pimped out by her uncle, pressed into sexual service for the state. There’s nothing empowering about this character or her story.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika with a placid poker face to preserve her secrets and the script’s— we never knowwhen she’s being sincere and with whom, and it’s all in service of keeping the twists and turns in place. But since we never know her, we can never relate to her, understand her or get on her side. Her only motivation is her sick mother, but it’s such a shallow subplot. She struggles against her roles while also taking to it like a duck to water, and we never understand her, or even know who she is. Maybe that’s idea, and we’re all just victims of the Red Sparrow herself.
“Red Sparrow,” a Twentieth Century Fox release, is rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity. Running time: 139 minutes. ★★
Samuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot” opens with a prominent credit: “A German- French- IsraeliSwiss co- production.” Though this is Israel’s Oscar entry, and a nominee for Best Foreign Language film, that international production lineage seems more significant than just the source of financing. “Foxtrot” is a film about Israel, but it is about Israel’s relationship to history as it relates to itself, and other countries, in conflict, and the intergenerational trauma of war as it radiates through families.
Written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Maoz, “Foxtrot” is an exploration of Israeli military life that is at once harrowing and absurd. It even angered Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev after it won a grand jury prize at the Venice Film Festival last year, and while its depiction is specific to Israel and Israeli history, the ideas in play could be a general condemnation of war itself.
The film opens with the Feldman parents receiving the news that their son, Jonathan, a soldier, has been killed. Upon greeting a pair of officers at the front door, Mrs. Feldman, Daphna ( Sarah Adler) collapses and is sedated, while Mr. Feldman, Michael ( Lior Ashkenazi) is rendered nearly catatonic. The only instruction he is able to follow is to drink a glass of water every hour, which the officers have instructed him to do, even setting an alarm on his phone.
As the funeral arrangements are being made, and family members begin to gather and grieve, the officers return— they’ve made amistake. It was another Jonathan Feldman who was killed, and a case of mistaken identity. So sorry. This is what turns Michael from a zombie into a rage- filled father, demanding to see his son.
“Foxtrot” is broken into three distinct acts, the second of which follows Jonathan’s ( Yonaton Shiray) life stationed at a remote outpost. He and his buddies wave camels through the checkpoint and scan IDs in rain or shine. They eat canned food and sleep in a shipping container sinking into the mud ( a powerful symbol). They tell family stories, draw dirty pictures and scan and scan IDs. This experience of “war” is so banal it’s horrific.
The acts are stylistically distinct, though linked through the unique camera movements leading us into the whirlpool of absurdity swirled by military chain- ofcommand, whether at the outpost or in the Feldman home. These bored soldiers don’t face danger, though they are primed for it. Trapped by labyrinthine protocol, the situation is pregnant with the potential to shatter and splinter into a million little pieces with one mistake, one reaction, one act.
“Foxtrot” lulls you into a rhythm and then pulls the rug out from under you again and again, destabilizing itself as a means of making you look closer, to examine the stories and anecdotes and details. A childhood tale of Jonathan’s that seems like a quirky family story reveals itself as a metaphor for the ways in which culture and tradition have been perverted by the modern world, distorted after years and years.
The exploration of national identity and intergenerational relationships through an intimate family tragedy is akin to another nominee for Best Foreign Language film, Russia’s “Loveless,” which also uses the story of a lost boy to suggest the ways in which these nations have lost themselves in post- modernity.
“Foxtrot” is arch and ironic, and also devastatingly sad. Through the allegory of this family’s tale, Maoz criticizes the endless, meaningless war that continues on and on in a futile dance, a never- ending box step that always leads us back to the beginning.
“Foxtrot,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for some sexual content including graphic images, and brief drug use. Running time: 111 minutes. ★★★
Lior Ashkenazi, left, and Sarah Adler star in the Sony Pictures Classics release “Foxtrot.”