Marfa Girl 2
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Marfa Girl 2

In pumped-up espionage potboilers like “Atomic Blonde” or “Salt,” Charlize Theron and Angelina Jolie have gone through the motions of imitating male action I, Daniel Blake stars at their most kick-ass grandiose. They’re slickly “empowered” women, yet it’s hard to distinguish that power from the thriller-video decadence of 21st-century action filmmaking.

In the elegantly tense and absorbing “Red Sparrow,” on the other hand, Jennifer Lawrence portrays a Russian spy who’s a cunningly desperate human being — or, at least, Beast enough of one that each scene rotates around the choices she makes, the way she appraises and seizes the destiny of the moment. Lawrence, in this movie, shows you what true screen stardom is all about. She plays a spy as someone who acts out a role, but does so (paradoxically) by acting as little as possible; she cues each scene to a different mood, leaving the audience in a constant state of discovery. We’re on her side, but more than that we’re in her head. Even when (of course) we’re being played.

Directed by Francis Lawrence, who made the last three “Hunger Games” films, working from a script by Justin Haythe (based on the 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, a former C.I.A. operative) Final Score that taps the audience’s intelligence rather than insulting it, “Red Sparrow” presents Lawrence’s character, Dominika Egorova, as a victim who is cast into a state of peril she has to dig her way out of, one ominous chess move at a time. The movie is a thriller, but it’s also a kind of sexualized nightmare, and that’s the boldness of it. Dominika starts off as a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet, dancing before the glitterati of Moscow in a costume of resplendent red and gold. But her career is cut short by a horrific on-stage collision (not an accident, as we soon discover). It’s here that she confronts what it means to be a pawn in the ruthless new Russian state (the same, it seems, as the old state). We also learn that when her fury flies, there will be blood.

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