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Dominika Egorova knows the joys of being a prima ballerina in Russia’s renowned Bolshoi Ballet. Of course, rising to that level of expertise and public recognition takes grueling work and fevered dedication.
And … it can all be gone in a moment.
After a terrible accident onstage, Dominika's leg is horrifically broken, leaving her in a very difficult position. She will never dance again. So she and her sick mother, Nina, will have to leave Bolshoi’s housing, thus losing the medical care the prestigious ballet provides.
However, Dominika's Uncle Vanya—who is well situated in the Russian intelligence service (the SVR)—assures her that all is not lost. She still has some gifts that can serve her well, he suggests. She is, after all, a great beauty. She's also very bright. And, perhaps most importantly, a certain influential politician has lusted after her for some time now.
If Dominika will simply serve the State by meeting with this man in a, shall we say, intimate encounter, then the SVR might be able to extract some important information it needs from him. And, Uncle Vanya assures her, he will personally see to Nina's needs thereafter.
Just one forgettable night in a bedroom in exchange for all the care this beloved family member requires. Is there really a choice here?
Of course, as is often the case with things in the world of spies, the SVR's “simple” mission doesn't go as planned. That fat-cat politician ends up dead. Now Uncle Vanya flatly states that Dominika has another choice to make.
There can be, of course, no witnesses to the murder. And since Dominika just happened to be nearly naked and in the politician's abusive embrace when his blood was sprayed all over her, she'll either have to join the SVR's service full time or … die.
It's an unfortunate outcome. But is there really a choice here?
And so Dominika joins the Red Sparrow project: a program that trains gifted operatives to extract secrets through emotional and sexual manipulation. It will require grueling work and fevered dedication.
But, Uncle Vanya declares with a simmering sinister smirk as he waves the young girl away, that's nothing new for the great Dominika Egorova.
Dominika cares dearly for her mother. Even at the height of her ballet career, she’s far more concerned with her ill mother's daily needs than her own. In that self-sacrificial light, it's easy to see how the unscrupulous Uncle Vanya is able to manipulate her.
The Red Sparrow program trains men and women in the ways of seduction. "Every human being is a puzzle of need," the program's demanding leader, known only as the Matron, tells her gathered students. She insists that knowing how to satisfy a target’s unseen carnal needs will enable a skilled operative to serve the needs of the State, too.
Accordingly, the movie depicts a great deal of unclothed flesh as well as various sexual activities in explicit detail, including multiple sex scenes. We see one man’s full-frontal nudity. Women are shown unclothed from various angles that include upper torso nudity and rear nudity. Trainees are forced to remove clothes and perform sex acts as part of their “curriculum.” We learn that one man is gay, and we see images of two women caressing and kissing. The Matron talks of various sex acts and mental manipulations. A film the Sparrow trainees watch shows a naked woman being bound with ropes.
Female characters wear low-cut tops. We see Dominika in a curve-accenting swimming suit. Several people kiss.
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Sexuality and violence mingle here in deeply disturbing ways as well. Dominka is horrifically, graphically raped (clothing is forcibly removed) by a man who, in turn, is brutally murdered himself while he's assaulting her. She fights off another attempted rape while she’s taking a shower—bludgeoning her attacker with a metal shower handle.
Dominika is also tortured in various ways. She's doused with icy water while bound and naked in a freezing room. She's battered repeatedly with blows to her body, limbs, face and head (leaving her flesh badly bruised and her pupils full of blood). We see a video of another man being tortured similarly and then executed with a bullet to the back of the head. Someone else gets killed by a headshot from a sniper's rifle.
An American spy named Nate Nash is tortured as well by a specialist who strips layers of skin off his back and thighs with a special tool. It's implied that the same "specialist" also worked on another woman who turned up dead. (We see her corpse in a tub full of bloody water, the walls spattered with gore and flesh.) A man is strangled with a wire garrote that slices bloodily into his neck.
A man jumps down with his full weight on a woman's leg, snapping it and leaving the limb twisted at an ugly angle. Multiple fight scenes are brutal and battering. A woman gets hit by a speeding truck.
Crude or Profane Language
We hear more than 15 f-words, as well as a misuse of Jesus' name and several uses of “a--" and "h---."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dominika smokes cigarettes throughout the film, and several other characters smoke cigarettes and cigars, too. Various characters consume wine, whisky and brandy. During a tense, meeting, a senator's aid is obviously drunk after trying to drink away her nervousness.
Other Negative Elements
Since this is a spy movie, it's often difficult to tell who is being truthful and who is spewing lies.
Dominika vomits in the midst of her torture.
In 2014, actress Jennifer Lawrence was the victim of a hacker who stole her personal photos and spread nude pictures of her across the internet. “It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime. It is a sexual violation,” the actress subsequently told Vanity Fair.
In a recent 60 Minutes interview, however, Lawrence stated that she couldn't pass up playing the female lead in Red Sparrow because the film—with its many nude sequences and moments of sexual violence—was actually something that she could use to "regain a sense of self."
"I realized there’s a difference between consent and not. I showed up for the first day, and I did it, and I felt empowered," she said. “I feel like something that was taken from me, I got back."
The audience for this espionage flick—based on a novel written by former CIA operative Jason Matthews—may have a harder time, however, appreciating that expression of "empowerment." After watching the central female character being emotionally abused, roughly manhandled, graphically raped and cruelly tortured, it's difficult to walk away from this film feeling upbeat.
Red Sparrow does have its Hitchcockian-style moments. And Jennifer Lawrence works hard to inhabit her role and to draw our collective viewer sympathies. Still, this film is emotionally raw, sometimes gruesome, and scattered with wince-inducing interactions.
Oh, and of course, there are also those many fleshy visuals. "It’s my body, it’s my art, and it’s my choice. And if you don’t like [breasts], you should not go see Red Sparrow," Ms. Lawrence told 60 Minutes.
Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova; Joel Edgerton as Nate Nash; Jeremy Irons as General Korchnoi; Matthias Schoenaerts as Vanya Egorov; Thekla Reuten as Marta; Charlotte Rampling as the Matron; Joely Richardson as Nina Egorova
Good media discernment is about guarding our eyes and hearts before we watch or listen. And it's also about grappling with the entertainment we do see or hear. That's why the Plugged In Blog is devoted to guarding, discussing and grappling.
Protecting our families today is more vital than ever. And by partnering with ClearPlay and Net Nanny, Focus on the Family hopes to point you to resources and tools that can help you navigate the entertainment world around you.