Emerald Fennell (erstwhile showrunner of BBC drama Killing Eve) delivers an acidic comedy thriller that puts a rape-revenge plot into pastel pop pastiche. Often controversial and not universally enjoyed, Promising Young Woman should stick in your mind whatever your reaction.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) has dedicated her life to hunting down predatory men and dismantling the culture of non-consensual hook ups. She acts drunk in bars, her head lolling back as she spills her drink on herself, to entice predatory men into taking her home under the pretence they’re concerned for her well-being. But once they’re about to stripping bare her seemingly unconscious body, Cassie flips the switch and reveals she’s stone cold sober.
A thirty-year-old medical school drop-out still living with her parents, working part-time on a coffee shop (owned by Laverne Cox), Cassie’s a character many will identify with. She’s single-minded and ruthless in her pursuit of predators, but has no career aspirations, no personal interests, and no love life. Some have argued Promising Young Woman perpetuates the idea that women can’t recover from trauma, but others see it as a woman taking back control of her life in her own violent way—like so many idolised male protagonists in years gone by.
The introduction of Ryan (Bo Burnham), a paediatric surgeon whom Carrie studied with, sends the movie into unexpected rom-com territory. Promising Young Woman effortlessly jumps between genres, which may give some people whiplash. A tough thriller goes all cute in the middle, with Cassie enjoying a brief flirtation with the normalcy of falling in love. Ryan and Cassie’s courtship is slow and romantic; a believable pairing for a woman who’s struggled to trust men for over a decade. For a minute, audiences may be lured into a false sense of security…
Promising Young Woman deals with the extensive complications of sexual assault. It’s not just the men who take part in the crimes, it’s the women who downplay the violence, and it’s those in roles of power who ignore the allegations. Fennell bravely doesn’t let anyone off the hook, although while never blaming women for the actions of men, she does blame them for the internalised misogyny that allows men to have the boys-will-be-boys mentality.
One scene where she meets an old friend (Alison Brie) and gives her a taste of her own medicine, perhaps contradicts some of the feminist arguments presented. It also shows that the vengeance we spend years and years seeking out isn’t always as satisfying as we hope it will be. Cassie’s pursuit for revenge is slightly rerouted when Ryan reveals the man whose behaviour sent her on vendetta has returned from the UK. Suddenly, Cassie can see an end to her never-ending revenge mission and despite a dark final arc, she receives some form of closure.
Promising Young Woman has a lot of stylistic elements that make this difficult subject matter more palatable. The world Cassie lives in is full of pastel builds, 1970s suburban interior decoration, and bright neon signs. The soundtrack includes Paris Hilton, Charli XCX, and a haunting instrumental version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”. The aesthetic might not be for everyone, but it’ll appeal to the Instagram generation who recognise the representation of men in this film.
Mulligan is a fine actress, but she perhaps doesn’t bring the fully layered performance a character like Cassie deserves. Her throaty American accent is unbelievable and, at times, her performance is unconvincing. She excels in the romantic subplots, but lacks the fire of someone who goes to such lengths to get revenge on people. Mulligan’s just a bit too passive to elevate the screenplay.
Fennell makes a point in not casting an obvious femme fatale—such as Margot Robbie, who is a producer on the film. Predators don’t care how you look or how you dress. There’s no slut-shaming in Promising Young Woman and Cassie isn’t glamorous or sexy, as she’s often dressed in workwear when the men start their assaults. This makes her a good presentation of an ordinary modern woman.
The casting of the men is masterful. These self-declared ‘nice guys’ are played by famous TV and film ‘nice guys’ like The OC’s Adam Brody, Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and New Girls’ Max Greenfield. These men are written like ones we’re supposed to root for in Hollywood rom-coms, but in reality the film reveals their actions would be creepy, possessive, and controlling.
Fennell’s BAFTA award-winning script excels at crafting realistic trauma, which is often a swing of moods and irrational decision-making. Cassie’s trauma is never minimalist for the sake of making an interesting film. Promising Young Woman also has no interest in defending the offenders. In fact, these characters are underwritten and almost cardboard cutouts of men in bars. Their behaviour is never excused, in stark contrast to reality. The title is a play on the term often used to describe Brock Turner.
Promising Young Woman is a tonal rollercoaster, even if that’s the point, so it won’t be for everyone. Fennell skilfully finds power in using the campest music during the grittiest scenes, which somehow makes it both easier to comprehend and more stomach churching to behold. It neatly subverts our expectations of revenge thrillers, where watching the perpetrators getting their comeuppance is entertaining and death a suitable form of justice. It also deals with what happens after revenge has been enacted, which isn’t so typical for movies of this nature.
The bleak final act will probably leave a sour taste in your mouth, whether you like its creativity, or find its hopelessness unsatisfying. Cassie makes irrational decisions, her emotions cloud her judgement, and her search for revenge overwhelmed her. She’s the perfect imperfect female lead, and isn’t it about time women had their own antihero figure?
UK • USA | 2020 | 113 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Emerald Fennell.
starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox & Connie Britton.