[mild spoilers for Promising Young Woman. Content warning – sexual assault]
Synopsis: Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a mess. A medical school dropout who gets blackout drunk at bars, she is an easy target for predators … or at least that’s what she wants you to think. In reality, Cassie is an angel of vengeance, wreaking havoc against supposed ‘nice guys’ who prey on drunk girls, in the memory of her best friend Nina, who was raped in medical school only to be disbelieved by everyone else. However, when Cassie sparks up a connection with ex-classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), another way of life might open itself up to her.
1. The rape revenge movie has a sordid history, with the grimy exploitation flicks of the 1970s tap-dancing on the line between titillation and catharsis, often using the traumatic event as an excuse to lavishly portray sex and violence. In this less than grand tradition arrives Promising Young Woman, which might be the first rape-culture revenge movie I can think of. Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature diverges sharply from the usual rape-revenge tropes, most obviously in focusing its fury not on the stereotypical ‘violent psychotic stranger’, but instead on the system that coddles, protects, and excuses sexual assaulters. Fennell and her protagonist do not carve up flesh and blood, but instead the sorry excuses that ‘nice guy’ predators and their enablers use to justify their bad behaviour, which makes the film not just appropriate for its times, but a much needed corrective as well. Such a pity then, that Promising Young Woman cannot quite reach the heights it aims for, thanks in large part to how it stumbles in its final act. While there is plenty to recommend – its sharply incisive satire, a killer lead performance, its confident and assured sense of style – Promising Young Woman‘s relatively glaring flaws means that it, as the title suggests, never goes beyond simply being promising.
2. The first and most obvious element of Promising Young Woman is how feminine its aesthetic is. The film is awash with all types of feminine design, from the old-fashioned chintz of Cassie’s parents’ house to the sterile ‘live laugh love’ modernity of the coffeeshop Cassie works in. Aside from that, Fennell and costume designer Nancy Steiner deliberately style Cassie in a Madonna-whore manner, with Mulligan wearing soft florals and girlish pastels in the day while clad in monochromatic office and club wear at night (think pencil skirts and little black dresses). This aesthetic not only serves to make it clear that this is a story told from a feminine perspective, but also signals the movie’s desire to be different from its ultraviolent progenitors. While the prototypical rape-revenge movie like The Last House on The Left (1972) or even new spins on the genre like Revenge (2017) relies on guns and various bladed accoutrements, Cassie is armed with nothing more than her wits and her words. The violence in this movie (well ok, for most of it) is not physical, but intellectual and emotional. One of the sharpest ideas in Promising Young Woman is about the insidiousness of how sexual assault is often justified and rationalised in society, (1) and as such, it makes sense for Cassie to be so explicitly coded feminine, to disarm her prey before tearing their flimsy facade of being a ‘nice guy’ to shreds.
3. Fennell’s sense of style (beyond the art and production design) also shines through in a number of camera moves and editing. Like almost any debut feature from a talented filmmaker, there is an element of technical showoffiness to Promising Young Woman that borders on being too much – it’s the unmistakeable bullhorn call of ‘hey, look what I can do!’ That is not to say that these stylistic tics are not enjoyable, because they very much are. In particular, Fennell’s soundtracking is inspired, with cleverly ironic deployment of pop songs like ‘It’s Raining Men’, ‘Toxic’ and (ingeniously) Paris Hilton’s so-bad-it’s-good single ‘Stars Are Blind’. The shots of this film are also excellently composed, with one particular scene (involving a confrontation between Cassie and Alison Brie’s Madison) noteworthy for how far the camera is from Cassie, isolating her and swallowing her in mise-en-scene. However, the one place where Fennell could stand to improve is her editing. She nails the ‘big’ cuts – a hard cut early on from slow-motion close-up to wide shot assured me I was in good hands – but there is an odd rhythm to many of the ‘basic’ cuts, and there were moments where I was confused as to whether a cut was an intended jump cut or simply a superfluous one. This is actually a good microcosm of Promising Young Woman as a whole – it nails the big bravura moves, but is shaky in its basic foundation.
4. What’s the furthest thing from shaky though is Carey Mulligan’s lead performance. Since her breakout in 2009’s An Education, Mulligan has been quietly excellent in supporting roles in films like Drive, Shame and The Great Gatsby. Promising Young Woman belatedly puts her back in the spotlight with a role that will probably become synonymous with her career. This is the sort of role that actors kill for, a morally dubious yet sympathetic antihero with an immense range of emotions within the same scene and sometimes even the same moment. It is also, of course, the type of role that tends to be coded male, and both Mulligan and Fennell deserve plaudits for their distinctly feminine portrayal of the antihero. Aside from the aforementioned candy-coloured costuming and makeup, Cassie’s very specific role as ‘feminine antihero’ also comes through in how she largely avoids violence, with her spree of vengeance coming largely through the weapons of words, insinuation, and emotional blackmail. The central genius of Mulligan’s performance is in how layered it is, with Cassie is always playing several roles and angles at any one time, yet never losing sight of the fact that she is a desperately lonely and unhappy person. There is no simple ‘you go girl’ catharsis, only Mulligan skilfully and subtly navigating the treacherous emotional terrain that Cassie’s mission has led her to. Mulligan’s performance is a potent mix of vulnerability, anger and sadness, and much of the movie’s impact is thanks to how high its lead actor is able to soar. Fennell also wisely stacks the rest of her cast with ringers, with such reliable actors like Clancy Brown, Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge, Alison Brie and Connie Britton in key supporting roles. Of special note, however, is Bo Burnham, whose disarming woke-boy charm Fennell deploys like the bait in a mousetrap – and I will say no more of this in order not to ruin the experience.
5. Where Promising Young Woman goes off the rails, however, is in its final act. What initially appears to be one of the boldest decisions I’ve ever seen in a film ends up limping to a damp squib of a conclusion. Without spoiling as much as possible, what I will say about Promising Young Woman‘s conclusion is that it reminded me a little bit of Joker in the way that it maybe-kinda-sorta allows its protagonist to have their uncomplicated vengeance while simultaneously letting them off the hook for it. To me, this was a disappointing development because the film had previously been so finely poised on the issue of Cassie’s morality and had toyed with the viewer’s judgment on whether (i) the ends justified her means and (ii) if they were causing more damage rather than catharsis to her. So the big moment was a shocking overdose of reality into the candy-coated veins of this movie – how else would you possibly expect a plan like this to end? Then the movie starts to course correct back onto a more staid path, and the shock of the big twist fades into a shoulder-shrug at another ho-hum ‘now it’s time for my real masterplan’ reveal orchestrated by a protagonist who may as well be omniscient. I’m not in the business of rewriting movies, (2) but Promising Young Woman almost begs to have its final fifteen minutes retooled. Rather than simply feinting at the ultimate anticlimax, why not go all the bloody way? It even works thematically, because there would be no better way to underline the systemic injustice around sexual assault than to render Cassie’s entire crusade meaningless. Would it have been shocking? Of course! But for a movie that is clearly intended to be provocative and controversial, there is nothing more disappointing than a cop-out ending.
6. All in all, Promising Young Woman is a feature debut that while extremely promising (I will not apologise), never quite hits the heights that it ought to. There is plenty of talent and intelligence on display both in front of and behind the camera, with writer-director Emerald Fennell exhibiting both a satiric wit and a coherent, eye-popping aesthetic. Yet, as different and as clever as much of the movie is, it falters at the end, with its attempt to thread the needle between the uncomplicated thrill of bloody revenge and the cold shock of anticlimactic realism delivering on neither count. This is still a film that is very much worth watching, thanks in large part to Carey Mulligan’s superlative lead performance and its unique, off-kilter take on both the rape-revenge and romantic comedy genres (both deeply problematic in their own ways), but I can only wish that the filmmakers had the same kind of convictions as their protagonist to follow through and deliver something truly special. It’s the kind of movie that makes you wonder what could have been, and hopefully whatever Fennell serves up next will be the masterpiece she is capable of.