It didn’t flop, per se, but the Jennifer Lawrence-starring Red Sparrow didn’t soar to success at the domestic box office this weekend, either. After opening at an estimated $18 million, it looks like it’ll top out around a middling $45 million in the U.S., according to Box Office Mojo. In non-U.S. markets, it took in an additional $26.5 million, bringing its global total up to $43.5 million. The movie has a long way to go before it can be considered profitable, which, according to a general rule of thumb, would require its worldwide gross to double its production budget of $69 million.
To put things in further perspective, in three days, Red Sparrow has already grossed more than the preceding Lawrence theatrical release, mother!, did in its entire run. Red Sparrow, though, has scored lower on Rotten Tomatoes than mother! (50 percent versus 69 percent), and it certainly hasn’t divided audiences as passionately as mother! did last fall. Though brief, mother! had a moment, and for the debates and controversy it inspired, was something of a flash phenomenon. Despite going out of its way to be provocative, Red Sparrow, meanwhile, is just kind of fluttering there in the ether.
What Red Sparrow and mother! have most in common is that Lawrence gets tortured throughout both. If she were a devout Catholic, I’d assume this was some sort of mea culpa for being so damn successful; as it stands, maybe choosing roles where terrible things happen to her characters is a coincidence, or maybe the reason is for Lawrence and her therapist (assuming she has one) to figure out. In Red Sparrow, her character Dominika must quit her job as a ballerina because she breaks her leg, which we get to see in graphic detail. She is raped and then, a few scenes later, nearly raped again. She’s sexually humiliated at an academy she later refers to as “whore school,” where she’s taught how to use her sexuality as a weapon for the Russian government (or a “sparrow”) by the sadistic Matron (Charlotte Rampling). The setup is not unlike that in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, except not even the sadists seem to be having much fun. Dominika is later punched in the face, submitted to water torture, and tied to a chair and beaten. She’s forced into these situations to be able to support her ailing mother. I haven’t even gotten to the most miserable things about this miserable movie.
At least mother! had a mission, a reason for putting Hollywood’s highest paid, (arguably) most beloved woman actor through the ringer—destroying such an icon in front of our eyes was a device to show us the way humans have destroyed Earth on a scale that we could potentially wrap our heads around. I know this metaphor did not work for a lot of people, I know that many moviegoers (particularly women) are sick of watching women get tortured onscreen for the sake of entertainment. That’s all fair. But even if mother! director Darren Aronofsky failed to persuade the masses that his woman-in-trouble narrative was for a noble cause, the existence of said cause was unmistakable. I don’t know what the point of Red Sparrow is other than to ruin your day. It is as bleak as the overcast skies in the various European cities Lawrence’s character walks through pouting as she’s doing her...spy work. (Really, maudlin strolls are what it mostly seems to consist of.)
There’s some kind of parallel to real life in there—in several interviews, Lawrence has said she was empowered by her onscreen nudity in Red Sparrow, that it allowed her to reclaim what was taken from her when nude photos of her leaked in 2014 as part of the “Fappening.” This process gets literalized onscreen in a scene in “whore school,” in which Dominika is made to face a classmate who tried to rape her the night before in the shower (she ends up kicking the shit out of him, which is not the first time in the movie that she brutalizes someone in a bathing scenario). She’s assigned to give him what she didn’t in the shower in front of her class, so she removes her clothes and leans back on the desk in front of the classroom. Her would-be rapist now can’t get it up. In response, Dominika announces, “Power. That’s what he wants.” She has seen and raised his assertiveness and he’s impotent in her wake. It’s an awfully pat and unrealistic triumph for Dominika that has some pretty gross implications in its commentary on sexual politics (it seems to be arguing that not being victimized is as simple as not allowing yourself to be victimized), but then Red Sparrow takes an entirely cynical view of sex. It’s just a way of manipulating people—even when Dominika eventually engages in 20 seconds of consensual hip-grinding (she’s wearing her underwear???) with CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), it’s an open question as to whether she’s doing it for pleasure/intimacy or to continue using him (basically the plot boils down to her double crossing a Russian official and then the CIA and then back and forth like a ping-pong ball with a Russian accent and bangs).
Director Francis Lawrence said that he specifically did not want to make an erotic thriller, and boy does it show. In the ’90s, Red Sparrow would have at least been ridiculous, if not full-on camp. But it’s really not much of one thing except for gratuitously violent. There’s a real gorehound streak in the R-rated Red Sparrow. It features a villain who wields a skin-grafting machine that he threatens (and starts) slow torture with. Bludgeoning abounds, there’s an incredibly messy murder scene left in a tub, and the entire thing climaxes in a three-way knife fight that will test the limits of your patience and stomach strength much like a real prolonged knife fight would test the limits of your body’s ability to stay alive.
Part of me admires Jennifer Lawrence for taking on such difficult projects—she clearly isn’t trying to pander to her massive, adoring audience, and whether intentional or an afterthought, she’s questioning what it means to be America’s sweetheart. I just wish she’d pick better material for her interrogation. Before mother! was Passengers, which was a sizable hit (it did about $300 million globally versus a $100 million budget), but god-awful. Before that was the brainless X-Men: Apocalypse (a global success) and before that was the underperforming and all together underwhelming Joy. To 60 Minutes, Lawrence acknowledged the importance of her films’ financial success to maintaining her status. “I don’t want to sound like I’m on a high horse, ’cause I might be on a tiny little Shetland pony in a month,” she said. I wonder where she sits right now.
In its report on Red Sparrow’s opening, Forbes noted that Red Sparrow proved the adage “true movie stardom is when a movie star can open a bad movie that has little to offer beyond said star power.” Sure, but I wonder how many more times Lawrence will get away with using her appeal to sell something that’s so utterly unappealing.