Movie Review: ‘Promising Young Woman’

Plot: Med school dropout Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) spends her days wiling away at a dead-end job as a barista. But it is during the nights where Cassie truly comes alive. Driven by the trauma of her best friend Nina’s suicide after being raped, Cassie spends her evenings cruising nightclubs and feigning drunkenness, where more often than not men take her home and try to take advantage – only to have Cassie turn the tables on them. When former med student Ryan (Bo Burnham) comes back into her life, Cassie hopes for peace beyond her pain. But when an opportunity presents itself to write past wrongs, Cassie will have to choose between balancing the scales or letting go of the past.

Review: The thing about being a cinephile is that you are constantly inundated with movies. Whether it is trying to keep pace with the latest MCU films, making sure you’ve watched that buzzed about indie flick everyone is raving about, or just chipping away at some blind spots in your cinematic backlog, it becomes at times exhausting to keep pace no matter how much you love movies. Consequently, only a few movies a year tend to make any type of impression.

After watching writer/director Emerald Fennell’s debut black comedy thriller Promising Young Woman I can categorically say this:

I feel like I have been punched in the trachea.

Visceral, acerbic, timely, darkly funny, and written with the fire of a 1,000 Targaryen dragons, Promising Young Woman is nothing less than a revelation. Fennell’s unique voice and flawless direction cuts through the surface level bullshit of sexual assault and harassment and strikes at the heart of the matter like a hammer blow from Mjolnir. Played out cliches like “We were just kids!” and “She liked to sleep around so this was crying wolf” and “We have to consider the young man in this situation” and “We get a lot of accusations” are exposed for the inadequate, trite, and weak statements that they are.

Fennell’s script and cutting dialog makes you uncomfortable in all the right ways. It was only about half-way through the film that I realized this was by design, especially if you are male. It makes you see the kind of sexual aggressions, both macro and micro, that many women go through on a day-to-day basis. The goal is to make you feel a little taste of what happens “on the regular” as the kids say. In fact, I don’t think I’ve been this uncomfortable in a film since Requiem For A Dream, and I say that with the utmost respect. Moreover, Promising Young Woman examines the idea of degrees of culpability. Namely, that while the perpetrators should get the lion’s share of the blame, it is the bystanders who also carry their own degree of responsibility. Promising Young Woman made me re-examine my own biases and attitudes and that is not something that happens often.

A powerful warrior is nothing without her weapon and thankfully, Fennel sports a brilliant blade with Academy Award nominated actress Carey Mulligan. In a career that has included brilliant work in movies like An Education and Drive, this is Mulligan’s best performance to date. Mulligan is a force of nature. Cassie is a woman haunted by past trauma but takes no pleasure in her revenge. In fact, I hesitate to call this a revenge film because from Cassie’s point of view, her actions are justice. In any event Promising Young Woman is so much more than that label.

Mulligan delivers a multi-faceted performance that lends texture and depth to the character of Cassie. We see her at happier moments when she is hanging out with newfound boyfriend Ryan (in an excellent performance from Bo Burnham). We also see Cassie at her most terrifying, whether it is manipulating former friend Madison (Alison Brie) into thinking she has been a victim of sexual assault or tricking her former Dean Elizabeth (Connie Walker) into believing that her daughter has been put in a compromising situation. The point is to finally have the people directly and indirectly involved with Nina’s rape see things from Cassie and Nina’s point of view. Despite the deliciously wicked nature of Cassie’s actions, you cannot help but root for her and feel that she is justified.

Promising Young Woman sports an excellent supporting cast as well. Clancy Brown plays Stanley, Cassie’s doting and naïve father while Laverne Cox brings the humor as Cassie’s spitfire boss Gail. Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse also have some great turns as notable scumbags in small but vital roles. Alfred Molina also steals some scenes as a lawyer tied to Cassie’s history who is racked with guilt. Even Chris Lowell and Max Greenfield of Private Practice and New Girl fame get in on the action. In fact, it wasn’t until doing some research for this review that I discovered Fennell intentionally hired male actors who’d had previous wholesome roles on TV and film to enforce the idea that “nice guy” can be a deceiving term.

Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography runs the gamut between bright and joyous to lurid and devious. He’s perfect at fulfilling Fennell’s vision and it captures the tumult of Cassie’s emotions and ultimate journey. It dovetails beautifully with Anthony Willis’ haunting score. Promising Young Woman also sports the most decidedly unique and appropriate use of a Britney Spears’ song I’ve ever seen in the closing scenes.

Speaking of the ending, I won’t ruin it for anyone but think of a cross between The Shawshank Redemption and an episode of Black Mirror and you’ll be in the ballpark.

Overall Promising Young Woman is a stunning directorial debut from Emerald Fennell that will leave you shocked, shaken, and surprised. Promising Young Woman delivers the goods, you just may want to carefully examine them first.

My rating System:

1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad

2 Straight Garbage

3 Bad

4 Sub Par

5 Average

6 Ok

7 Good

8 Very Good

9 Great

10 A Must See

Promising Young Woman rates: 10/10