It seems that Jennifer Lawrence and director Francis Lawrence (no relation) were just getting warmed up with the boundaries they tested in putting the young-adult action of “The Hunger Games” onscreen. Following up their three-film collaboration on that franchise, the pair reunite for “Red Sparrow,” a hard-R espionage thriller heavy on themes of sexual degradation and graphic, sometimes sadistic violence.
This story of a Russian agent trained to seduce is arrestingly dark fare that takes risks across the board. Witness its renderings of trauma-engendered empowerment in the season of #MeToo, and drama that intermittently threatens to go right over the top. (It never quite does, thanks in part to sly supporting turns by Charlotte Rampling — “you will know me as Matron” [!] — and Mary-Louise Parker.) Lawrence takes off her clothes and puts on a Russian accent, never seeming ridiculous, only brave. To try to argue otherwise would be to willfully deny how uncomfortable the film’s carnally charged material makes us, as intended.
A running time approaching 2½ hours is sustained partly by an opening act that spotlights a very different world. We meet Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova when she’s still the toast of Moscow, a prima ballerina performing for the rich and politically powerful. After a jarring mishap leaves her without means to care for her sickly mother (Joely Richardson), she accepts an offer from her intelligence-heavyweight uncle (understated Matthias Schoenaerts ) and his superiors (Jeremy Irons, etc.) to get cozy with a government target.
Dominika’s reluctant decision has awful consequences. Her new handlers soon pack her off to a wintry training academy — “whore school,” as she later bluntly tags it — where Rampling’s dour taskmistress schools prospective “sparrows” in the art of seduction. But it’s the Russian government’s version of that art: lots of humiliating disrobing-or-else as prelude to repellent sex acts meant to break recruits’ will, or at least their sense of decency. (And Jerry Seinfeld thought he knew the definition of “bad naked.”)
Cue earthy headliner Joel Edgerton’s overdue re-entry into the story as CIA operative Nate Nash, whose pesky emotional investment had earlier spelled trouble for a Russian contact, and who consequently becomes Dominika’s next assignment. There’s real suspense in trying to get a lock on her intentions, even as she and Nate are getting busy thawing their personal little cold war, or teaming on a sting involving Parker’s tipsy, treasonous bureaucrat. J. Law’s spy game feels genuinely unpredictable, and not only as a career move.
Directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 139 min. R (strong violence, torture, sexual content, language, graphic nudity).
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.