Promising Young Woman Review
When we first meet Cassie (a blistering Carey Mulligan), she is the kind of drunk we all have been and never wish to be again. Completely out of it, unable to find her phone or her way home, a kindly man, played by Adam Brody, offers to help her. If you’re a man, you might think that the guy is being genuinely nice, going out of his way to help this woman. If you’re a woman, you know exactly where this is going and the blood in your veins starts to turn cold from fear and then boiling from fury.
Sooner rather than later, Cassie finds herself in his apartment, enjoying a nightcap and things are getting steamier even though she tries to weakly resist the man’s advances. Suddenly the tables are turned, when Cassie reveals herself to have faked her drunkenness in order to expose and destroy the toxic masculinity that seems to make the world go around.
Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman takes rape culture and victim shaming by the balls and attempts to obliterate both. This is the work of a filmmaker who is clearly angry and deeply disappointed in not just men, but everyone who allows such a harmful culture to still flourish. It would have easy to make this a film that hates men and lifts up women unashamedly. Instead, Fennell places blame where its due and no one is safe.
Carey Mulligan turns in a performance of a lifetime; Cassie isn’t the hero we want, but the anti-hero we need right now. She isn’t always likeable, at times cunning and smart but also frustratingly naïve in certain situations. Mulligan navigates Cassie’s tumultuous feelings confidently and with enough flair and electricity to power up a whole city. Ultimately, she is a tragic character - unable to move on from a past tragedy, Cassie attempts to find piece and solace by punishing and humiliating men. We are never supposed to idolise Cassie, but to feel and understand her pain and flaws.
The supporting roles are also cast impeccably. Alison Brie is especially memorable in a small role as Cassie’s old class mate and Bo Burnham is perfectly cast as the sweet and innocent Ryan, Cassie’s love interest. Promising Young Woman is filled with familiar faces, popping up here and there, but this is Mulligan’s show, through and through.
While the first half is bold and brave, Fennell’s script can’t quite sustain the momentum. There’s also a discussion to be had about Cassie’s willingness to put herself in harm’s way, seemingly to educate the predatory men she lures into her trap. Se is a vengeful angel and the film works best as a sobering fantasy about crushing toxic masculinity, but her quest for justice, revenge and her own personal inner peace is also troublesome and worth discussing.
One of the most resonant aspects of Fennell’s script is the use of language. Fennell utilises words and sentences we’ve all heard before: “She’s asking for it”, “I’m a nice guy”, “Can’t take a joke?”. There is something traumatic about watching Promising Young Woman as a woman, having your experiences portrayed with so much anger on screen. Fennell’s script is occasionally a little too expository, too much is explained rather than shown, but perhaps that’s intentional, perhaps the time to be subtle is over.
The final act is riveting and surprising as well as deeply cathartic. Promising Young Woman doesn’t offer easy answers to any of the questions it poses, but it does wrap up its narrative neatly with a little bow on top. There is a certain smugness to the ending and while it’s bold, it’s also a tad predictable. Fennell directs with a firm grip and plenty of confidence, using a bright, bubbly and overly feminine colour palette to make the film look striking and memorable. It might not be quite the feminist masterpiece it wants to be, but this is powerful work from Fennell and Mulligan.
Promising Young Woman is released in the US on December 25 and is currently scheduled for February 12, 2021 in the UK.