Reconsidering Red Sparrow: The Critical Aversion to Violence on Screen
There’s a sequence part-way through this year’s Red Sparrow (dir. Francis Lawrence) that feels designed to confound audiences: Spy-in-training Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is ordered to strip naked by the steely Matron (Charlotte Rampling) in front of her peers at the sterile, concrete Sparrow School. A man is called forward, whom we know to be her attacker and attempted rapist from an earlier scene: Egorova is showering and he grapples her from behind, at which point she beats him bloody with the shower tap.
The Matron orders the man to do it again, to which he complies with grave resolve. She submits, taking off her clothes, before turning around to face her attacker, looking him directly in the eyes—she wants him to see her as he does it. He’s impotent in response.
To see this on a huge screen in a half-full Hoyts cinema, instead of nestled safely in one of the cinema Nova’s basement theatres (where, when it comes to the films, anything goes) was a bizarre experience. Confronted with this and sequences like an extended skin-grafting torture and a man whose throat is slit as he forces himself onto the protagonist, the audience winced, gasped, laughed. A woman even burst into applause at the end, though no one joined in.
I left the theatre feeling as though I had seen something that convincingly, if brutally, portrayed a corrupt state’s willingness to dehumanise its people and to turn them into tools, at any cost. I felt physically drained; I had been dragged through hell with Jennifer Lawrence and had not emerged unscathed.
The critical branding iron
While the film hardly made enough waves to generate a viral Twitter backlash, it was poorly received (Rotten Tomatoes score: 47%) and endured a kicking from critics. It’s worth taking a look at some of the language used by critics who hated the film:
‘The director lurches from titillation to grotesquery, dangling Jennifer Lawrence’s beauty as a carrot and moments of ice pick discomfort as a stick’.
‘The fact that Dominika is told early on that her “body belongs to the state” … makes her the object of constant leering, and that male gaze gives Red Sparrow a skeevy vibe from which it never recovers.’
My issue isn’t with the fact that critics didn’t like it—it’s problematic for sure, with a dense plot buried under swathes of exposition and underwhelming reveals—but with how its intended discomfort is interpreted as leery and misogynistic, as if critics believed audiences were hooting and hollering at Lawrence’s fictional punishments. Buckmaster and Lemire among others seemed to position their distaste as moral indignation, when the point of the movie that audiences feel uncomfortable.
Jennifer Lawrence has worked with Francis Lawrence (no relation) for five years since the second Hunger Games instalment. Speaking about the film, the director says he and his lead actress discussed the use of nudity in the film and he promised that she would see the final cut of the film before anyone else did. Jennifer Lawrence viewed the nudity as empowering, a way of reclaiming her body after the infamous ‘phone hack’ in 2014.
The collaboration between actress and director, and the film itself, show that there is intention behind the violence. Rather than dissect the film, critics belittled it and branded it misogynist which, in an age when short statements via social media are used to spread the word about films, is akin to stamping a big red ‘A’ on it and marching it through the town square.
The European perspective
Revenge (dir. Coralie Fargeat), initially released at the 2017 Torronto Film Festival, is another film whose tale of revenge is instigated by an act of sexual assault on the female protagonist. Sitting at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, critics have praised it as an ‘incredibly stylish exercise … that runs at one of the nastiest and toughest exploitation subgenres’ (David Sims, The Atlantic), with Fargeat ‘[subverting] the male gaze’ with a character who draws from ‘unimaginable reservoirs of resilience and ingenuity’ (Christie Lemire, RogerEbert.com).
It honestly seems like the same criticisms that were used to snuff out Red Sparrow (by some of the same critics), are being used to praise Revenge. Fargeat’s is ultimately the better film, with a leaner narrative and more controlled direction, but each film uses its grisly subject matter to the same successful ends. When I saw Revenge at the 2017 Monster Fest with a packed cinema full of horror enthusiasts, I heard the same gasps and uncomfortable laughter at the film’s brutal, fictional mistreatment of each of its characters.
Hollywood’s impossible distribution model
Crucially, the difference is in the films’ distributions. Revenge is a European independent, allowed and encouraged to slink around the prestigious international film festivals, garnering word of mouth and reputation before it gets released in mainstream theatres (if it ever does). This is how movies used to become known, before the advent of unforeseen blockbusters like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) changed film distribution in Hollywood forever.
Red Sparrow, a movie that wouldn’t have existed without its ultra-bankable lead, was immediately plunked into movie theatres everywhere. Critics’ reviews come out in a deluge and a trend forms soon after, giving the film a reputation from which, during its limited run as a non-franchise film, it will never recover. The film competed with Marvel’s Black Panther, but more importantly, it entered an arena of mainstream films whose fans are already established, whose classifications rarely rise above our M15+. It’s like sending out a newsie to compete with a viral hashtag—it looks stupid even trying to compete.
Movies like Red Sparrow deserve to be discussed instead of buried under tweetable slogans of damnation. It’s a wonder that critics complain about the lack of original, challenging American movies in today’s studio-driven climate, when they do their utmost to stomp out the ones that don’t sit right with them.
Feature image via wmagazine.com