Mother! Russia

If muscle memory and mind memory were the same thing, then ballerinas and Sherlock Holmes would have a lot in common. How? Sherlock is a master of deduction (not seduction which we’ll get to in a minute) meaning the detective takes a piece of information and logically takes it to the next step. Eventually Sherlock sees a pattern because his brilliant memory never forgets a clue. Ballerinas string together bits of choreography, untangling the detailed steps thanks to years of classical training and muscle memory. They logically know how to leap across the stage and perform hours of movement just like Sherlock remembers all his clues. Decades of training turn dancers into athletic geniuses; but that doesn’t explain how the prima ballerina, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), becomes Jason Bourne overnight.

I’ve heard of ballerinas picking up physiotherapy or teaching or accounting after they hang up their slippers – but State-owned Russian secret service prostitutes? If nothing else, Dominika gets a fun story on how she fell into her job. After a terrible injury that ends her dance career, Dominika’s shady uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) steps in with a tantalizing job offer that will make her feel “special” again; Dominika will collect information from a very sketchy man in a State-sponsored, luxury hotel room. Naturally, Dominika gets in over her head and witnesses something she shouldn’t. Vanya’s “only” move is to either kill his niece or send her to spy school. Obviously, Dominika lobbies for spy school. This institute for young, beautiful, and gifted Russians educates its students in the art of seduction to extract secrets for the State. There are no boundaries and no limits. Still only half-trained, the unique Dominika is chosen for a mission to identify a mole within the Russian ranks. To do so, she must get close to the American agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), and convince him to reveal the mole’s identity. Naturally, Dominika gets a little too close to Nate and pretty soon we have no idea which side Dominika is spying for. It’s a mystery how this vengeful ballerina learned to play the Russians and the Americans from both sides against each other while staying afloat, stashing money for her own vendetta, and supporting an ailing mother back home.

It’s never entirely clear who Dominika is working for. Her uncle’s a total slime so any favour she pulls for the family is suspicious. On the other hand, the American CIA lures her in with sweet promises of partnership with the honourable, cunning, and athletic agent Nate. Dominika plays coy with Nate and in less than a week is volunteering every secret she was trained never to tell. Way to go, Pinocchio. The closer Dominika gets to her American mark, the clearer it becomes that, A) Nate is the better agent of the two, and B) Dominika would make a pretty good double agent herself. That is – spoiler alert – until she peels the skin off of her American partner to get information for the Russians. Literally? Like skinning potatoes, yes literally.

The “Red” in Red Sparrow isn’t just because Jennifer Lawrence looks divine in a red dress. It’s also a clue that this spy thriller involves some fisticuffs and a Russian who brings knives to his one-on-one meetings. Dominika’s flip flopping alliances are almost as unsettling as the creative display of broken legs, bruised eyes, water torture, papercuts, strangulation, and the descriptive smells of pooling blood. It’s gruesome, startling, and not for everyone. Go easy on your popcorn intake. But this reviewer found that the creative and oh so realistic slicing and dicing added weight to the disturbing scenes. If it didn’t look real, I wouldn’t have been so invested in the outcome. Unfamiliar noises in the next room or silence from behind the bathroom door are just as uncomfortable as a slow draw on the violin. Whatever comes next is bound to be awful and will probably determine Dominika’s allegiance.

I followed just enough of Red Sparrow to say that it’s clever, unpredictable, and that Lawrence’s resting Dominika is a little wooden. But in the end, I really can’t nail down any of Red Sparrow’s details. Like a classic spy thriller with double agents, moles, and scary uncles, I need to watch it more than once to really catch it all. There are too many details that slipped by me – but not by Dominika. How did this woman learn to strategize like Napoleon? With one hidden document she hatches a plan that spans several European cities, moving players, and predictions about people she met three days ago. It’s true that blondes have more fun, but after Red Sparrow I don’t think I know what fun is anymore.

Red Sparrow is a bloody mess in the most thrilling way. It combines a touch of classical dance with espionage and prostitute school and then sends a naturally deceitful woman across national borders to seduce an un-seducible American for the sake of identifying a mole who’s probably orchestrating the whole thing. With a smart 180°, Dominika then goes and screws them all over in turn, demonstrating at length what will happen if someone puts their hand on her lower back without her permission again. Red Sparrow is not a light movie or a mindless show and it will take a few rounds to really absorb all the details. Red Sparrow is 7 horrifying assassinations out of 10.

“Become a sparrrrrrrow.”