Promising Young Woman
Carey Mulligan is fierce and formidable in this brilliant, blistering and bubblegum-hued take on the rape-revenge genre.
January 07, 2021
Promising Young Woman would've made an excellent episode or season of Veronica Mars. That's meant as the highest compliment to both the bubblegum-hued take on the rape-revenge genre and the cult-status private detective series. Make a few casting swaps, and it's apparent how the latter would tackle this tale. Actually, as Veronica Mars fans know, the beloved TV show repeatedly examined the way women are treated in a patriarchal society, and the privilege afforded the wealthy, white and male at the expense of everyone else. It also explored rapes on college campuses in its third season, spanning the impact upon victims, the aftermath and the culture that's allowed such attacks to proliferate. Promising Young Woman writer/director Emerald Fennell clearly isn't blind to these parallels, even casting Veronica Mars stars Max Greenfield (New Girl) and Chris Lowell (GLOW) in her feature debut. Don't go thinking the Killing Eve season two showrunner and The Crown actor is simply following in other footsteps, though. At every moment — and as channelled through Carey Mulligan's fierce lead performance — the brilliant and blistering Promising Young Woman vibrates with too much anger, energy and insight to merely be a copycat of something else.
When Mulligan's character, Cassie Thomas, is introduced, she's inebriated and alone at a nightclub, her clothing riding up as she slouches in her seat. Three men discuss women over beverages by the bar, complaining that they can't hold meetings at strip joints due to the objections of a female colleague. They notice Cassie while chatting, with one commenting, "they put themselves in danger, girls like that". Voicing worries she could be taken advantage of by guys who aren't as nice as him, Jerry (The OC's Adam Brody) checks she's okay. A shared Uber ride follows, as does the offer of a drink at his place and, despite Cassie's out-of-it state and his supposed chivalry, Jerry's sexual advances. But when Cassie snaps her eyes open wide, asks what he's doing in a firm voice and reveals she isn't actually drunk, the night takes a turn — something Jerry didn't anticipate, just as he didn't ever entertain he was that kind of man, but one familiar to the medical school dropout-turned-coffee shop employee he's trying to bed.
Colour-coded names and tallies scrawled in a notebook illustrate this isn't a first for Cassie; it's her weekend routine. Fennell's script drip-feeds details about its protagonist's motivations for her ritualistic actions, the reason for ditching her studies seven years prior and why she spends her weeknights staring at photos of her childhood best friend; however, the specifics aren't hard to guess. Since moving back in with her parents (The Mortuary Collection's Clancy Brown and Like a Boss' Jennifer Coolidge), Cassie has taught lessons to opportunistic men hiding behind faux gallant facades — the type of guys who'll tell a woman they don't need so much makeup, then try to ply them with liquor when they're already sauced and take off their clothes while they're passed out, as Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bad Neighbours 2) does. But then ex-classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham, The Big Sick) walks into Cassie's workplace. She spits in his coffee and sparks still fly, but it's the news that someone from their past has returned to town that changes her vigilante quest.
In its much-talked-about trailer and in the film itself, Promising Young Woman makes stellar use of Italian quartet Archimia's orchestral version of Britney Spears' 'Toxic'. It arrives late in the movie, but anyone who saw the promotional clip knows it's coming — and that forewarning doesn't undercut its power, or how expertly it encapsulates the entire feature. Fennell wants viewers to fill in the pop song's words themselves, rolling around lyrics such as "a guy like you should wear a warning" and "poison paradise" in their heads. She wants everyone pondering toxic masculinity, and how heat-of-the-moment passion is often used to nullify consent concerns, too. Often dressed on her nights out like she could've stepped out of a music video, Cassie is on a self-given mission of vengeance against sexual violence, so Promising Young Woman deploys every method possible to reinforce that idea. Another 00s track, Paris Hilton's 'Stars Are Blind', accompanies a romantic sing-along that segues into an affectionate montage of Cassie and Ryan's dating honeymoon — and using a song by an objectified celebrity whose sex life has been so frequently dissected and shamed that no one now bats an eyelid obviously isn't accidental either.
Fennell's savvy, provocative and downright fearless choices just keep coming. Indeed, there's a relentlessness to Promising Young Woman overall that mirrors the persistence of grief and pain after trauma — and that remains the case even when the film makes big tonal swings, which always reflect the highs and lows of Cassie's emotional rollercoaster ride. Through cinematographer Benjamin Kracun (Monsoon, Beats), the movie weaponises its pastel, peppy and popping Instagram-friendly imagery, crafting a vicious flick about a dark subject that's gorgeous to look at. It fills its frames with vibrant surface sheen, as sighted at bars and in Cassie's outfits, then peels back their allure, making its audience constantly grapple with the contrast. Promising Young Woman never lets its protagonist's rage subside either, including in a bold finale that's one of its very best touches. It's furious from start to finish, Cassie is always inflamed, and sharing that feeling even in the film's most overt setups and obvious scenes (which are also some of its most entertaining) is a foregone conclusion.
And, of course, Fennell has also made the smart decision to cast Mulligan, and to draw upon her near-peerless ability to express complex internalised turmoil. It's one of the reasons that she's such a standout in everything from An Education and Drive to Shame and Wildlife, and it's once again on display in this sharp, strong and formidable portrayal. No woman brings sexual assault upon themselves, with this whole intelligent and astute revenge-thriller rebuffing the bro-ish bar guy's early observation in every way possible, and meting out punishment to those who think similarly. But Mulligan's performance as Cassie hammers home the dangers of that wrong notion in a manner that ensures Promising Young Woman is than just a female empowerment fantasy. She scorches, sears and resounds with such burning truth, and so does the feature she's in as a result.