Students receive training in psychological manipulation and seduction. “You must learn to love on command,” they’re told. And at any time, they may be called upon to perform a sexual act in front of the rest of the class.
A finishing school for “Bachelor” contestants? Nope. It’s State School Four, training ground for the young men and women who’ll use their bodies in any way the Russian government deems fit, in “Red Sparrow,” the adults-only spy thriller that’s equal parts twisty and twisted.
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is living the (relatively) good life in Moscow as a famed ballerina with the Bolshoi until she gruesomely snaps her leg. Three months later, her late father’s brother, Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), shows up with an offer. The apartment that Dominika shares with her ill mother, as well as their medical care, is paid for by the Bolshoi. Now that she can no longer dance, they’ll be taken away. As a deputy director of the foreign intelligence service, Vanya can take care of both — so long as Dominika helps him with a mission.
That favor turns out to be way more intense than Dominika expected. Once it’s completed, she’s presented with a choice: Enter the undercover Sparrow program or die.
“Your body belongs to the state,” Matron (Charlotte Rampling) tells Dominika at State School Four. With its drab gray uniforms and “Hunger Games” levels of manipulation, it feels like the sort of institution in which Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) might have spent her formative years before becoming Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Once Dominika’s training is complete, Uncle Creepy has her tasked with getting close to CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) by any means — emphasis on any — necessary. Once she gains Nash’s trust, her orders are to identify the mole he has inside Russian intelligence. If Dominika doesn’t produce the intended results, or produce them in a timely enough fashion, she’ll be murdered.
“Red Sparrow” is the fourth consecutive collaboration, following the final three “Hunger Games” installments, director Francis Lawrence has had with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation). Adapted by Justin Haythe (“A Cure for Wellness”) from the first in a series of novels by Jason Matthews, who spent 33 years with the CIA, the movie feels like the launching pad for another Jennifer Lawrence franchise.
Much like the spies themselves, the filmmakers keep many of the plot developments on a need-to-know basis. Viewers never can be certain if there’s an honest attraction between Dominika and Nash or if one or both of them are being manipulated.
That level of sophistication, and the need to really pay attention, make “Red Sparrow” feel far more like a grown-up September release than one hitting theaters in early March.
Regardless of the month, “Red Sparrow” is most definitely for grown-ups — and not just because younger viewers would be too distracted trying to figure out what a floppy disk is. (I remember floppy disks well, but I lost several minutes of the plot while grasping for a reason they’d be used in a contemporary movie.)
“Red Sparrow” traffics in nightmarish levels of abuse and torture. I’ve seen terrible things — heck, I’ve seen Hilary Swank have sex with Tommy Lee Jones by a campfire in 2014’s “The Homesman” — and I still wanted to look away.
Without spoiling much of anything, similar to Katniss Everdeen, Dominika turns her perceived entrapment into a weapon.
The fact that she truly will embrace any means necessary to get what she wants gives her a type of feminism that couldn’t be more 2018.
Even if that 2018 still employs floppy disks.
Movie: “Red Sparrow”
Running time: 139 minutes
Rating: R; strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity
Now playing: At multiple locations
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.