The pieces are in place for a swiftly told spy yarn. The movie opens with a gripping sequence that intercuts footage of Lawrence's Dominika Egorova, stoic and graceful, preparing for an important dance recital and Joel Edgerton's American agent Nate Nash, rugged and brutish, outrunning bad guys in the dark. Nash gets away relatively clean; Egorova isn't so lucky. After suffering a career-ending injury, she's sent on a dangerous mission by her not-so-dear Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), witnesses a brutal murder in a hotel room, and quickly finds herself forced to join the "red sparrow" program, which is a bit like Hogwarts School for sexual entrapment and psychological manipulation. So far, so pulpy, right?
Not exactly. The training program, which Dominika quickly refers to as "whore school," is run by British actress Charlotte Rampling in a stern, domineering manner. The "lessons" are built around moments of extreme humiliation, forced sexual contact, and threats of violence. Anyone who thought they were walking into a contemporary version of last year's stylish '80s shoot-em-up Atomic Blonde, which turned Charlize Theron into a blonde killing machine, will be immediately taken aback. This is not La Femme Nikita with furry hats.
The confrontations that occur in Red Sparrow, like an attempted rape in a shower where Dominika fights off her attacker with a blunt object, are brutal. The soundtrack is filled with cracking bones. At the same time, the presentation of the sex and nudity, a requirement given the material, has a leering quality to it. Lawrence (the filmmaker) puts Lawrence (the star) in seedy situations and shoots them with an unsettling remove. Unsure of how trashy or high-minded the movie should be, the director is content to watch you squirm.