While America’s history of racial tension has become a notable topic of recent films, I’m actually surprised that the #MeToo movement hasn’t spawned as many movie’s as the idea of justice for rape victims seems not only topical, but appropriate for dramatic storytelling. Sure, we’ve gotten a few features like last year’s “Bombshell”, but mainstream offerings have been few and far between thus far. “Promising Young Woman” seeks to change that. The first feature film written and directed by Emerald Fennell of “Killing Eve” and “The Crown” fame, “Promising Young Woman” mixes elements of the dark comedy and thriller genres to provide us with a look at one woman’s revenge quest against the men who wronged a friend in college. With a name inspired by a statement made during the infamous Brock Turner case, “Promising Young Woman” is provocative, amusing, and suspenseful and will certainly be uncomfortable for those who choose to deny the prevalence of sexual abuse in our society.
“Promising Young Woman” stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, a former medical school student who, now pushing thirty, still lives with her parents and settles for a dead-end job working for a local coffee shop. By night however she seeks justice against men who pick up and attempt to take advantage of drunk women pretending she is inebriated and allowing the men to take the encounter to a certain point before putting them in their place. Her actions stem from a traumatic experience her friend Nina had in college. When Cassie meets a young doctor and former classmate named Ryan (Bo Burnham) and starts dating him she is inspired to take revenge on the people responsible for Nina’s abuse taking her methods to the extreme. When I first saw the trailer for “Promising Young Woman” I expected something a little bloodier and more out of control. While the movie certainly does veer into “out of control” territory it becomes something much more tasteful and reserved even if Cassie’s methods aren’t exactly the most agreeable.
“Promising Young Woman” is clearly rooted in the #MeToo movement right down to its title and has been described as a “rape revenge thriller with bite”. While I agree with this description it almost provides an unrealistic expectation of the film. As I said the trailers had me expecting something bloodier and more violent and that’s not what we get with the final product. Over the course of the film we seen Carey Mulligan’s Cassie seek revenge against a series of wrongdoers all related to her friend Nina’s rape including a friend who didn’t believe their story, an attorney who defended the rapist, the dean of the college who refused to investigate and, of course, the rapist himself. One of the most interesting aspects of this film is that for a long time we are left to wonder exactly how far Cassie is willing to go. The film builds tension with each revenge plot that makes us wonder if Cassie has gone off the deep end to become just as bad as the people she is trying to punish, later pulling the rug out from under us when we discover her plan is more thought out and less hypocritical. Done wrong these fakeouts could have provided us with an underwhelming experience that feels like a betrayal. However Fennell and Mulligan pull it off so well and provide us with a character we want to see win, so seeing her take less violent measures and be more redeemable makes the thrills not the violence we should expect but rather the did-she-didn’t-she drama of discovering if Cassie surrendered her humanity in her search for revenge. We want to see her take more peaceful measures not the other way around even if we feel her victims deserve what’s coming to them. It’s a fun switcheroo especially for a thriller.
Carey Mulligan is a big part of why it all works too as Cassie might not be a perfect person, but she feels relatable and fun to watch. Mulligan stretches her dry comedic chops through every second of this film and as her backstory slowly unfolds we begin to feel more and more for her mission and want to see her succeed, but not at the cost of what makes her redeemable. She’s cynical, but it’s easy to see why and we spend the whole movie hoping she can dish out revenge without losing what she still has. Much of the rest of the cast plays second fiddle to Mulligan and most of them are pretty good, but the one other standout is Bo Burnham who plays Ryan, Cassie’s eventual boyfriend and a connecting thread that leads her to her ultimate victims that were involved in the main rape incident. Burnham is a personal favorite of mine and his performance in this film brings out his best from his comedic timing to his ability to emote and take a dramatic turn in his performance. He also plays an important part in showcasing how even the best men can often have demons that compromise their best intentions. One major idea this movie presents us is that men don’t have to be inherently bad in order to do bad things and Ryan is at the center of that conflict serving as a figure that makes us wonder if one bad decision truly defines someone’s character.
I’m also a big fan of how this movie builds itself up to a climax and takes plenty of unexpected turns even when you think you know where it’s going. I already touched on how it can often feel like Cassie is giving into the madness and becoming just as bad as the people she seeks revenge on, but the pacing and story structure is a big part of why this film so effectively tricks us into believe it’s going to be something it’s not. Emerald Fennell turns in a truly impressive debut as a writer/director with a focused, carefully planned and uncompromising approach to its subject matter seeking to shed insight onto many different angles of sexual abuse rather than just the most obvious elements of the crime. Some may find it preachy or pandering in how it goes about its mission, but it’s hard to deny the harsh realities that inspired it. The film also rarely tells us that its main character is in the right, only showcasing why she feels she has been driven to such desperate measures when the world around her won’t help her. Even the ending serves as a fun fakeout that brings everything full circle as we realize how far Cassie is willing to go to achieve her mission and how blind some men can be in relieving themselves of the guilt of their crimes. It knows when to take things too far and exactly how to bring them back while achieving the desired effect resulting in an experience you might not expect but can certainly appreciate.
“Promising Young Woman” is going to rub some people the wrong way and that’s the point. Some will see it as preachy while others might feel underwhelmed by it’s more reserved take to it’s plot. Honestly I kind of liked that it wasn’t what I expected and yet is still provided plenty of twists and turns balanced by comedic levity without losing the punch it needed to sell it’s timely themes. The acting is awesome, the story structure and pacing is great and the overall tone is unsettling but engaging. This is a fine directorial debut for Emerald Fennell and a great effort to capture the harsh realities of sexual assault from the trauma of the victim to the deserved repercussions faced by everyone involved in the crime. It’s an in-your-face experience that’s also a lot of fun and keeps you on the edge of your seat. I’d highly recommend it.