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Promising Young Woman (2020)
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Promising Young Woman (2020)

An intoxicating revenge flick, even when it gets caught between character study and psychological thriller.

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Revenge on men hasn’t exactly been a rare topic of discussion in film in recent years, and neither has the need to expose those of us with Y chromosomes for all the wrong we’ve done in this world. Promising Young Woman, however, takes this idea and adds a dark and clever twist, aiming to be as therapeutic as much as it is fun and entertaining – highly effective when it’s able to do both, but not so much when it tries to have its cake and eat it too.

Carey Mulligan plays the mercurial and unreadable Cassie Thomas, a young woman who spends her evenings tricking morally suspect men at nightclubs into taking her back to their apartment, testing their ability to restrain themselves when she says she doesn’t want to fool around. If they don’t listen, she makes them pay in one way or another. It’s at this moment early on when writer/director Emerald Fennell makes the choice between this becoming a film about unbridled aggression with the focus on Cassie’s spree of inflicting punishment, or about revenge with the focus more about why exactly Cassie feels the need to punish these men. Fennell chooses the latter. Mostly.

You see, Cassie’s best friend, Nina, was a victim of date rape back in college. Nobody believed her and her assailant got away scot-free. Things spiraled out of control further from there, with Nina dropping out of medical school and, eventually, committing suicide. Cassie also dropped out and has now lived the past seven years with this pent-up fury, enacting her revenge on these perverts who can’t take “no” for an answer.

Cassie has found herself in a state of regression of sorts. Once a promising medical student, the incident with Nina disillusioned her to life in general and she’s now settled as a soi-disant barista, spending her work hours reading books and gossiping with her coworker, begrudgingly preparing coffee for any customers who walk in and so rudely interrupt. At home, she lives with her parents, acting like a petulant teenager, unwilling to engage in conversation with her concerned and loving mom and dad. For those unfamiliar with her secret nightlife (aka everyone), she’s a classic underachiever, but we see there’s more to it than that.

Things change once former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) walks into the coffee shop and asks her out on a date. Apparently he’s had a crush on her since med school and hasn’t seen her in years. At first she refuses, but eventually takes him up on the offer. All is well and good until Cassie learns that Ryan still keeps in touch with the others from their friend group in college; some of whom she deems responsible for the incident that happened with Nina, and some of whom are responsible. This elevates her revenge to another level as she begins to personalize her retribution.

More often than not, the film relies on the probability that men are going to behave in insidious and unforgivable ways in order to enact their unspeakable schemes. I’m hoping that most of the audience watching – and speaking personally as a male viewer – know that, while many men are pigs, most of them don’t behave like this. Fortunately for Cassie’s story, none of the good ones are in this movie.

From beginning to end, there’s no denying that Promising Young Woman is a thrilling and captivating cinematic ride with ne’er a dull moment, and Fennell always keeps her eye on what she wants to accomplish, even if there are times when the director doesn’t feel satisfied with exactly how she wants to accomplish it. The wickedly dark humor and glistening mise en scene conjure up subliminal evocations of neon pinks and blues, even when they’re not present, giving the feeling this film may exist in some altered version of reality, especially when punctuated by the aforementioned caricaturization of male stereotypes.

While sexual abuse is definitely a serious problem with an alarming rate of ubiquity in our society, the way certain situations are exaggerated for the sake of this movie is only presented as such to prove a point. Well, we think so, but then things get real for Cassie along the way, to where the line between allegory and truth gets blurred. We can straddle that line perfectly fine and are glad to be doing it. That is, until the final act when the audience is betrayed by one of the characters. It’s not pleasant, and might seem like it’s serving a higher purpose at the time, but Fennell opts out of letting said character redeem themselves when the opportunity presents itself.

Unfortunately, the director has to traverse a stubbornly unrealistic route to double-down on this betrayal and prove her point once more. We’re often not even sure if this film wants our protagonist to win or be happy at all, incessantly abusing her and kicking her once she’s down – or worse, once she’s actually back up again. Perhaps Cassie should think about getting revenge on this script (also written by Fennell) while she’s at it.

Yet, despite all this, Fennell and Mulligan still manage to keep us roped in. The film continuously drops intoxicating clues all over the place with the enthralling promise of several big payoffs, fully submerging us into Cassie’s life and what she’s going through. And as Fennell toys with our emotions, Mulligan is fully believable in reacting as though she’s never read the script and her character is hearing of all this for the very first time. There haven’t been a lot of recent movies able to keep the viewer and the protagonist side-by-side on a roller coaster of highs and lows like this one has.

Fennell’s direction is nothing short of masterful. She adds small touches here and there that keep us on the edge of our seats, heart pounding and eyebrows raised, whether it be Cassie breaking the fourth wall with a swift, yet haunting glance at the camera in the opening sequence, or Nina’s former lawyer simply and unexpectedly remembering Nina’s name. The director works so symbiotically with composer Anthony Willis and DP Benjamin Kračun to unite these elements of filmmaking to create a singular hypnotic experience that when Mulligan gives her final diatribe, we literally get locked into some sort of trance.

The filmmaker fills her story with captivating supporting characters, including Cassie’s loving, yet worried parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), her quirky boyfriend Ryan, and Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), one of Cassie’s self-absorbed pervy “victims”. But this movie belongs to Mulligan herself who delivers her headiest role yet. Her character’s unpredictability is not just established for effect, but is totally justified. She rolls around town like a stoic crime boss in a Camry, drinking her juice boxes and eating her licorice. The actress has ultimately transformed into Cassie and remains unshakably locked into the character’s every inclination.

Promising Young Women just might be the man-hating film to end all man-hating films, and while the revenge stuff is fun while it lasts it does beg the question whether its message can be interpreted as irresponsible even if it means empowering women? Emerald Fennell has crafted a film that combines authentic emotion and surrealistic trappings to create enough conflict for the viewer where they’re unsure whether to or not to trust what they’re seeing, no matter how satisfying or entertaining the movie may be to watch. Where a disappointing denouement might usually spoil the greatness leading up to it, this film manages to be the exception to the rule.

About the Author: Ethan Brehm