“You must inure yourself to what you find repellent,” intones Charlotte Rampling, playing the unnamed stoic headmistress of what another character in Red Sparrow describes as “whore school.” Her lesson plans must look bonkers; many of them seem to involve forced sexual encounters, sometimes conducted from the front of the classroom, and chilly accompanying analysis. It’s all meant to prepare these Russian operatives for a life of seduction and betrayal, and it’s a long way from the ballet training that Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) better understands. Then again, maybe it’s not as far as it looks: Even before her training begins in earnest, Dominika proves herself adept at brutal dance-world retribution after a nasty fall robs her of her life’s ambition.
Red Sparrow begins by intercutting Dominika’s preparation, performance, and subsequent fall with the general skulking of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), an America CIA agent. Though Nash’s activities are more typical of international intrigue, it’s the ballet half of the sequence that captivates, due to the attention director Francis Lawrence lavishes on the famous face of his leading lady. When Lawrence (the director) first took over the Hunger Games series with Catching Fire, he ended the movie with perhaps the most evocative shot of the series: an extended close-up of Lawrence (the actor) as her face resolves from grief into fury. His early shots of Lawrence’s face in Red Sparrow—sometimes dead-center of frame, sometimes so close that only her eyes remain in full focus—are even more crucial, because she’s playing a character considerably less emotive than Katniss.
Dominika accepts an offer from her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) to become a “red sparrow” under similar circumstances as Katniss’s tribute volunteering; she wants to protect the home and health insurance of her ailing mother, both threatened now that she can no longer dance in the Russian ballet. But at least some of her steely determination seems to come from somewhere darker, beyond a protective instinct. The movie never quite puts its finger on the source of her power, which makes it both intriguing and a little needlessly opaque.
In other words, it’s not always easy to tell when Dominika has inured herself, and when she is struggling with what she finds repellent, especially after she completes her crazy-ass training. This makes her a good agent when she heads into the field, but not one of Lawrence’s most fascinating characters, especially because Red Sparrow seems more interested in the ambiguities of Dominika’s twisty spy story of moles and counter-spies, and how it intersects with Nash’s, than the nuances of her character. For all the movie’s talk of expert sexual manipulation, it only occasionally toys with those woozy feelings of doubt, lust, and paranoia. Still, it’s a capable and compelling departure for the actress, a more minimal take on her action-hero steeliness.
Likewise, the action is more minimal than what’s been seen in past Lawrence vehicles. This is a more old-fashioned potboiler, with lots of walking, sit-down meetings, and smoking cigarettes by windows. It’s still trashy, with scenes of naked shower combat, naked and semi-naked torture, horrific violence, attempted rape, and attempted rape that ends in horrific violence, but sometimes, somehow, it doesn’t seem quite trashy enough. It’s about halfway between Atomic Blonde and a Focus Features late-summer thriller, which more or less fits the Francis Lawrence aesthetic. He brings to this material what he brought to The Hunger Games: a sense of style that feels constrained by obligations to hit a certain number of plot points.
A lavishly costumed, location-enhanced thriller, Red Sparrow carries itself along briskly enough (even with a 139-minute running time, the most indulgent thing about it), but it’s never especially brain-twisting or nerve-wracking. Beyond Lawrence staring out from her severe bangs, its best curlicues are provided by the well-stocked supporting cast, especially Mary-Louise Parker, who enlivens a crucial scene playing an American contact. Still, this movie can’t be accused of inconsistency. It approaches the material (a novel by former CIA officer Jason Matthews) with methodical professionalism, aimed at adult moviegoers. Like Dominika after her initial injury, it gets the job done, and doesn’t get too balletic about it.