The age of the movie star is over. Long gone is the time where stars could launch films and franchises; it’s franchises, spin-offs and sequels that matter. You could argue that Jennifer Lawrence bucks the trend, but it would require the careful omission of Susanne Bier’s Serena, an historical romance starring Lawrence and Bradley Cooper that well-and-truly cratered at the box office.
Nonetheless, having anchored a couple franchises (X-Men, Hunger Games) and more than a few ill-advised David O. Russell projects, JLaw seems determined to cash in her celebrity capital on more challenging projects. Okay, maybe describing Passengers as ‘challenging’ is a stretch – the sci-fi-rom-com’s only challenging quality was its inability to recognise its central relationship was incredibly abusive – though it certainly wouldn’t have demanded the budget it warranted without Lawrence’s presence. And challenging certainly describes mother!, her collaboration with then-boyfriend Darren Aronofsky.
Rounding out this ‘how-long-til-I-have-to-star-in-another-X-Men-film’ trilogy is Red Sparrow, from Francis Lawrence, the director of the last three Hunger Games. While this film isn’t as provocative and anticommercial as mother!, it’s decidedly not the sort of film that gets made for this sort of budget nowadays. A mid-‘90s espionage thriller that’s light on the thrills and heavy on stomach-turning sexuality and violence – think Verhoeven meets le Carré – Red Sparrow isn’t pitched for the multiplexes. But, thanks to JLaw (and a pricey marketing campaign that focuses on star power over story), that’s where it’s landing, hoping to cobble together ticket stubs in the wake of the Black Panther tornado.
For the most, critics – whose impact on the box office bottom line has been carefully mitigated by strict embargoes – have been harsh on the film. I’m not surprised; Red Sparrow is as unappealing to critics as it is to general audiences. Despite centring on Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Russia, Justin Hythe’s screenplay isn’t interesting in presenting any kind of contemporaneous commentary. The film is coldly sexual. Lawrence’s character, acclaimed ballerina Dominika, is sent to ‘whore school’ after a career-ending accident by her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), and spends the rest of the film wielding her sexuality as a weapon. But if there’s a subtext about the sexualisation of women here, it’s buried deep under layers of espionage obfuscation. There’s no woke takes to be had here; just a story of manipulation, betrayal and ambiguity. (Even the positive reviews seem intent on shoving it into a familiar package; Empire’s Ben Travis praised it as “a promising beginning to a potential new spy franchise.”)
I’m not here to acclaim Red Sparrow as some misunderstood masterpiece. It’s not. Nor is it the disaster its detractors declaim it as. It’s not the action movie, the Atomic Blonde part deux, that its trailers promise. It’s alienating and soberly-paced; its framework of deceit steadfastly refuses to engender sympathy in any of its characters beyond Dominika. Even she remains a mystery throughout – as she plays the Americans (represented chiefly by Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash, a CIA agent who’s squirreled out of Russia in the opening scene after an information exchange goes wrong) against the Russians, the film plays coy with her true loyalties. Red Sparrow is like a feature length version of The Americans, possessed of the same pessimistic view of human nature and tightly-coiled narrative of double-crosses, assassins and moles. I will freely concede that this is not for everyone.
I think it’s more interesting to ask a simple question: why did Jennifer Lawrence choose to throw her clout behind this film? It’s not the kind of movie that attracts awards attention, as its first quarter release suggests, nor is it a marker of arthouse authenticity (à la mother!). Maybe it was simply a favour to regular collaborator Francise Lawrence? However, I think it’s interesting to lay Red Sparrow out alongside Passengers and mother! and observe their common features, the qualities that might have drawn the world’s highest-paid actress to these projects. Genre-wise and tonally, they’re as disparate as it gets, but they are united by the way each film objectifies Lawrence’s characters.
In Passengers, Lawrence is an object of desire; a sleeping beauty (called Aurora in case you missed the ref) subjected to heinous gaslighting by Chris Pratt’s creeper. mother!’s most memorable – and disturbing scene – is the Lawrence’s assault at the hands of a raging mob egged on by her on-screen husband, Javier Bardem. That brutal scene – Lawrence’s first on-screen nudity – felt like a deliberate evocation of the actress’s violation after her nude photos were hacked and plastered across the internet. Passengers concludes with JLaw in love with the man who betrayed her; mother! concludes with her an immolated victim.
Red Sparrow …well, I don’t want to give away the ending. Suffice to say, she has a little more agency here than the prior two films. Yet this is not a tale of empowerment; it lacks the feminist thrill you might expect from a spy film starring such a prominent actress. The marketing push for Red Sparrow felt obliged to talk about Lawrence’s nude scenes. Probably a smart way to sell tickets, though the promise of ~sexy times~ jars with the film’s clinical, off-putting ogling of its lead actress’s form. It’s easy – and fair – to rail against this kind of male gaze, but taking in the context of Lawrence’s recent artistic choices, Red Sparrow’s chilly objectification strikes me as more than horny leering.
Maybe I’m overreaching here, but the three films together suggest that Jennifer Lawrence – for all her flaws as a person and an artist – isn’t interested in embracing the shallow celebratory feminism pushed by mainstream Hollywood. Where ‘strong female characters’ means a superhero traipsing through No Man’s Land rather than any serious-minded acknowledgement of society’s deep-grained sexism. Passengers, mother!, Red Sparrow – these are imperfect films, films that are a long way from ‘woke’. But it’s not hard to imagine that they resonate with Lawrence because of how frankly they depict the challenges of striving, succeeding – and failing – as an attractive woman in a world where that makes you an object to be exploited.