Disclaimer: May be triggering for people sensitive to rape and sexual assault.
What would happen if a woman’s past trauma turned into the kindling for a revenge fantasy? And what would happen if she fulfilled that fantasy every weekend? This intriguing premise operates in Promising Young Woman, directed by Emerald Fennell—and that is only the beginning. However, as viewers get deeper into the film, they become entangled in a web of grief, rage, and even flickering hope. The story pulls you in and brings you along the tale of a woman who never quite learns how to move on, with a few stumbles that her character’s satisfactory leaps and strides more than make up for.
By day, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is the woman taking your order at the coffee shop who dropped out of med school several years earlier and still lives with her parents. By night, she is the woman at the bar, dressed in revealing clothes and almost too drunk to stand. She catches the eye of a seemingly helpful man who offers to call her a cab, or maybe take her home, or actually just take her back to his place. He tells her to lay down, starts getting a bit handsy, and by the time Cassie’s underwear is halfway down her legs, she sits up stone-cold sober with a look in her eyes that says she is not to be trifled with.
As Cassie wades through life, she settles into this routine. She wakes up every morning to her concerned parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) who want their thirty-year-old daughter to get out of the house and get a life. But the whole time, there appears to be something looming over her head, keeping her stagnant since dropping out of med school. This mystery isn’t technically resolved for the audience until about halfway through the film, but everyone has a solid idea within the first few minutes. They just don’t say it out loud, instead letting it cast a shadow over every scene.
This film is hard to typify as a genre because it switches almost seamlessly between thriller, dark comedy, and drama, with aspects of horror and it even veers a bit into rom-com territory with the budding relationship between Cassie and a guy named Ryan (Bo Burnham). Ryan starts to win Cassie over, one clever quip at a time. Their unlikely romance develops into a reason for her to become unstuck. However, this budding love interferes with Cassie’s vengeance-filled nights and, as always, a looming shadow poises itself to rain down and destroy everything in Cassie's life.
However, make no mistake, this is not a romance, no matter how many bubbly pop tunes there may be (one of the most joyful scenes is set to a Paris Hilton song). The humor veers more towards the grim side, but it’s sharp with some moments when I laughed out loud and, dare I say, even snorted. As strange and disjointed as that all sounds, it works, largely due to the commitment of the actors to their roles and the direction of Emerald Fennell.
Fennell has several acting credits to her name, including a stint on the most recent season of The Crown, and some writing experience, but Promising Young Woman was her first time in the director’s chair on a full-length movie. Remarkably, it does not show. Fennell handles the film with precision and deftness that makes me ecstatic to see what she does next. Even though this is her first directorial outing, her style is distinct in a way that is incredibly enjoyable to watch. It was very obvious that she had a vision, and exactly what she pictured played out on screen.
In “Anatomy of a Scene” for the New York Times, Fennell dissected a scene from the film: “it was very important to me in this film that we’re seeing stuff that is just incredibly commonplace, that it’s not remotely unusually not only for men to pick up girls who are very drunk and take that as a sort of green light, but also for them to talk almost exclusively in a monologue.”
Fennell created a concise film that explores the themes and questions surrounding abusive men and their impunity. She tackles this challenge through a female lens. How does one move on from instances of rape and sexual assault when the perpetrators get off with little more than a slap on the wrist? Are there happy endings for the women left behind? These threads are woven expertly through the screenplay, which Fennell can also claim credit for.
For all Fennell's well-earned praise, this movie would not be what it is without Carey Mulligan as Cassie. Mulligan gives the performance of a woman mildly off-balance, teetering back and forth between her bright future and self-destruction. The viewer could see how the life she was living was almost like a warped mirror image of the life she could have had—if only one event hadn’t come to pass. Mulligan sells it in a devastating way, but also shows off her amazing talent. She walks the line between humane and monstrous skillfully enough that you are not sure whether to believe her or not when she claims to have done monstrous acts. This subtlety to the performance and the character is part of what made her such an intriguing protagonist. The film could have done well to focus more on her character instead of losing her in the twists and turns of the plot at times, but these instances were not enough to leave the audience completely dissatisfied.
Some parts of this movie do rely on a suspension of logic a bit heavily. In the moment, it didn’t hinder the overall experience, but certain head-scratching scenes did arise. These occasions were minimal, but they could have been a bit more polished.
Good movies have been hard to find lately with the lack of advertising from theaters and the flood of streaming releases. Promising Young Woman, however, is an overlooked gem. The message and themes are, unfortunately, still relevant in 2021, but Fennell gives a fresh take on the subject and offers the viewers things to consider long after the credits roll. I have no doubt this movie will last in our culture and will be spoken about years down the road. For now, it's a great movie to make some popcorn, turn off the lights, silence your phone, and enjoy.