Francis Lawrence’s film of Jason Matthews’s espionage best seller introduces its Russian heroine and her CIA counterpart with an unexpectedly sweet flourish: in two shots, each character is shown at either far side of the frame in an apartment, suggesting that they are in fact together in the same room—until another cut reveals they aren’t even in the same neighborhood, much less on the same team. It’s a subtle way to set a tone of unease in a spy thriller that effectively keeps us guessing—but what follows involves hard-edged spycraft of a sort usually avoided in this often well-mannered, even courtly genre.
Red Sparrow gets down and dirty, and fast, setting a ballerina named Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) on the road to recruitment through a gruesome broken leg, and then consigning her to a grueling and sexually humiliating training school run by Charlotte Rampling. Drawn in bold strokes on a big Moscow canvas, the story spirals out of Dominika’s first mission to seduce an oligarch (as ordered by Putin double Matthias Schoenaerts), as she quickly discovers the spy profession’s double-bind hold on its soldiers. Nash (Joel Edgerton) is the all-American operative from the opening—drawn to rescue her until he realizes he’s just keeping up.
Lawrence and Lawrence clearly work well together, veterans of three Hunger Games arena blowouts. The star, Russified with bangs, throws herself into her role with abandon (cf. mother!), suggesting, pace how some directors cast her, that her bravura dramatic energy flourishes best in worlds of genre extremes.