Promising Young Woman, 2020.
Written and Directed by Emerald Fennell.
Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Angela Zhou, Steve Monroe, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Adam Brody, Alfred Molina, and Sam Richardson.
A young woman, traumatized by a tragic event in her past, seeks out vengeance against those who cross her path.
To an alarming amount of people, there is no global health crisis until they are attending a funeral via Zoom for a relative. The same applies to sexual assault, which a concerning amount of people, including some women, are comfortable looking away from if that promising young man has a bright future. But what about the promising young woman that’s denied justice?
In Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan plays Cassandra who is pushing 30, living with her parents, and working at a coffee shop despite once attending a medical school and excelling near the top of her class. At night, she feigns intoxication at slimy nightclubs, playing the role of the prey on would-be rapist men that proclaim they are “nice guys” and wish to take her home under the guise of ensuring safety when really all they want to do is have some advantageous date-rapey sloppy drunk sex. Of course, that’s before turning the tables and scaring the shit out of them, all with the line of thinking that they will rethink their seedy methods.
That’s one thing that should be made clear about actor turned writer/director Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman; Cassandra is not some psychopath or serial killer of evil men; her MO is instilling fear into them, and in the cases of other women, bending her moral compass placing them into distressing predicaments that force a relation to her pain. There’s a scene where she revisits her medical school for a confrontation with the Dean (Connie Britton) who basically helped pull under the rug a disturbing case of sexual abuse very similar to say a real-life Brock Turner or Brett Kavanaugh incident. Going back to what has to be one of the saddest truths of humanity in that some people only care when they are the ones being affected, Cassandra does something that, without giving it away, changes the Dean’s tune pretty quick; you would think she saw a ghost given how quick she does a mental 180.
Cassandra is living two lives (something Carey Mulligan is extraordinary at here, especially when a scene calls for her to go from vulnerable to in charge), unable to move on from what happened to her friend Nina. In addition to terrifying random guys at clubs, Cassandra is also planning a grand expose scheme on Alan (Chris Lowell), her dead friend’s abuser that now happens to live a cushy life and is about to marry a model. The tree of complicity also goes beyond the Dean and into a particularly cold friend named Madison (played by Alison Brie) who seems to have drunk too much of the Kool-Aid when it comes to siding with men and their victim shaming, and a lawyer played by Alfred Molina who took part in silencing a number of sexual abuse cases over his tenure now feeling guilty to the point where he’s practically asking for Cassandra to hurt him.
Simultaneously, Cassandra is also developing a strong friendship with Ryan, a pediatric doctor played by Bo Burnham. And while the antics of Cassandra playing games with dirty men has a justified mean streak of black comedy, her interactions with Ryan are a different brand of comedy. There is also a sense of genuine affection from Ryan; maybe he is one of the so-called “nice guys”. In a creative choice that further proves how confident Emerald Fennell is in switching up tones, even the lighting and color palette for these scenes take on the look of an optimistic romance, a stark comparison to the brooding and atmospheric presentation of the grimy moments. Cassandra is also a highly complex character, so stepping away from that double life in pursuit of something happier is not necessarily going to be easy, whereas letting down her guard and letting someone into her heart could be catastrophic for certain reasons.
It goes without saying that one of the greatest strengths of Promising Young Woman (aside from Carey Mulligan dominating a role unlike anything she has ever approached, and also unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a touted revenge movie) is the unpredictability of its narrative. This is not a film that’s extremist in the message it wants to portray, which has been a major problem for recent films that attempted to stir up a profound artistic statement within the #MeToo movement. It’s also not here to excuse any of this behavior. And it sure as hell is not going the route of over-the-top violent revenge fantasy.
Emerald Fennell tensely builds to a final act that plays out shockingly, although we shouldn’t be surprised that the film refuses to end on a conventional note. Promising Young Woman starts off in the realm of dark comedy (whether it’s watching Christopher Mintz-Plasse of Superbad fame playing an incel writing a book about how hard men have it or some truly devilish needle drops like a dark cover of Raining Men) and then shifts into the makings of a romantic comedy. However, Emerald Fennell never really embraces that romantic comedy part, because that would imply dishonesty to these characters, and throughout every single tonal shift, Promising Young Woman remains honest to them. In a way that the romantic comedy scenes feel like the movie being something it’s not, it’s also Cassandra living a life she is not destined to have. It’s clear from the beginning this is always going to end devastatingly, but how remains an elusive mystery until a string of bold choices closes out the narrative, ready to elicit dialogues in an unquantifiable amount of directions.
Promising Young Woman is a scintillating tale of sexual abuse that, even in its narrative structure, consistently examines the systems that allow men to get away with horrific crimes. It’s also not afraid to make layered statements about revenge and, for one character, forgiveness. There are plenty of Me Too era films skewering this kind of abuse, but Promising Young Woman is one of only a few that actually seems to want to spark serious conversations about any of it. Carey Mulligan matches that energy of going somewhere provocative every step of the way; people will label Cassandra everything from an avenger to a psychopath, but the reality is the character can’t be placed into a box, much like this film is impossible to categorize in one singular genre. It needs to be seen, both for its topicality and daring choices.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
“If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, you are not alone. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE or online.rainn.org. It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7 in English and Spanish.”
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com