'Red Sparrow' is Sadistic Torture Porn That Even Star Jennifer Lawrence Can't Save

How many naked women need to be assaulted in a film before a director has made his point? Two? Three? For Francis Lawrence, the answer is a pile so big it’s impossible to tell the victims apart.

At the New York premiere of his spy thriller Red Sparrow, released Friday, the director of the final three Hunger Games films thanked his producers for allowing him to “make the art I want to make.” He stressed that 20th Century Fox never pressured him to release a PG-13 cut of Red Sparrow, which was a story, he assured the viewers gathered at New York City's Alice Tully Hall, that could only be told with an R rating.

By the end of the first scene, we see why. Star Jennifer Lawrence’s Russian prima ballerina Dominika is attacked by a fellow dancer onstage, who lands on her extended leg with a loud crack. The camera regards Dominika from above, the dancer splayed out on the stage before bending with an open mouth over her large tutu to see what’s happened. A gasp ripped through both theaters—the Russian audience in the film and the one watching the film: Dominika’s tibia was broken into an almost 90 degree angle. It was a graphic opening scene, but treated with artistry, and I'm sure I wasn't alone in hoping that every other moment of violence in the film would be treated with similar restraint.

red-sparrow Lawrence regards herself in the mirror before the horrors really begin in 'Red Sparrow'. 20th Century Fox

But Red Sparrow is where hope comes to die.

Adapted from a fanciful novel written by ex-CIA agent Jason Matthews, the film is grade-A pulp. After her on-stage attack, Dominika can't dance and needs money to afford her terminally-ill mother’s healthcare. So she allows her incestuous uncle to enroll her in a government-sanctioned program that creates Sparrows—Russian spies who seduce and manipulate their enemies. After graduating sexy assassin school, she’s assigned a case involving a ridiculously-named American spy, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who figures her out within minutes and enlists her as a double agent—or so it seems.

Red Sparrow is intended to be a sexy thriller, but it's little more than a canvas for one director's limited vision of women, of which there are only two stereotypes: lovely  creatures to be beaten into submission, and cruel, useless hags. Neither lasts very long.The body count is astounding, and there are so many images of naked, beautiful women being beaten, punched in the face, raped and tortured that they truly do begin to blend into a dehumanized mass.

Aside from Dominika, of course. She lives—if a bottomless misery pit can be called a life. Lawrence makes the most of the role, but even she can’t save Red Sparrow from what it is: torture porn.

red-sparrow-jennifer-lawnrece-2 Dominika (Lawrence) and the other trainee Sparrows regard a group of soldiers they're asked to seduce. 20th Century Fox

Most of the nameless women in the film are beaten or killed without much to say. They lack the special qualities that the men in Red Sparrow repeatedly praise Dominika for. Which isn't to say that she escapes unscathed: Dominika is brutalized in every conceivable way—insulted, slapped, sexually assaulted, etc. But at least she's allowed dialogue, and minimal character development: She's a dancer, she loves her mother and she can withstand a lot of abuse.

jennifer lawrence red sparrow Jennifer Lawrence stars in 'Red Sparrow' (2018). 20th Century Fox

It’s a Hollywood cliche at this point to have a rape or assault explain the motivation for revenge or violence. Red Sparrow pushes that trope beyond its breaking point. It doesn’t take one assault to shape Dominika—it takes an endless barrage. One hour into the film, as she's being beaten with a pipe by Russian government officials, you could feel the audience's mood shift toward extreme discomfort. 

When asked by critics whether this banquet of naked torture scenes was necessary, Francis Lawrence simply said, “Yes.” Jennifer Lawrence is apparently fine with it, too. She reportedly saw a cut of the film before it was sent to producers or critics, and she didn’t ask for any cuts. In fact, the outspoken feminist told 60 Minutes on February 26 that the film’s use of nudity “empowered” her. “It’s my body, it’s my art, and it’s my choice. And if you don’t like boobs, you should not go see Red Sparrow.” 

Some moviegoers will hopefully feel empowered to avoid Red Sparrow. When it comes to Hollywood, the only thing that says stop is bad box office. Telling stories of women overcoming adversity is important and necessary. We just don't need to see those stories told with sadistic glee. It's the survival that should be prioritized, not the atrocities. 

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