Emerald Fennell makes a fiery debut with this spin on revenge.
“I cannot begin to tell you how much I’ve thought about it.”
Promising Young Woman, the fire-breathing feature debut of writer-director Emerald Fennell, is a film I’ve been thinking about for almost a week. It’s about a woman, Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan), dealing with the fallout from the sexual assault of her best friend Nina when the two were in med school. Cassie and Nina were standout students, but the aftermath of the assault derailed their plans. They left school, while Nina’s assaulter and everyone else involved went on with their lives (relatively) unimpeded. With a seemingly boundless appetite for revenge, Cassie, now 30, stalks nightclubs every weekend, luring in would-be predators for a night they’ll never forget. But, she’s not out to get a specific person as much as she’s out to get society as a whole. Well, there are some specific people Cassie is out to get. There just also happens to be plenty of people who put themselves in her cross-hairs. Like its protagonist, Promising Young Woman is a film that suffers no fools and frequently finds ways to make fools suffer. It’s a movie about a tragedy that happens so often it can be collectively forgotten, shoved aside and reduced to a statistic while everyone forges ahead with their lives. The truth at the heart of Promising Young Woman is that we don’t forget, so much as we try to block out, minimize, and outright deny the things we’d rather not remember.
This isn’t a movie that’s out to teach viewers something they don’t already know. It’s a movie that’s pissed off at the world and wants to make sure everybody know it. That mindset, and Emerald’s confidence as a storyteller, makes Promising Young Woman so provocative that it doesn’t even matter if the film occasionally missteps. The conviction behind every choice makes the film worth scrutinizing. Take Cassie’s encounters with her prey, for example. It’s not entirely clear if Cassie’s goal is to maim these guys or just scare them straight, but there are hints that both options are on the table (Cassie, after all, does have some medical knowledge and tools to wield). What’s more important, however, is that while Cassie pretends to be too drunk to function, she gives the guys multiple chances to do the right thing. The horrified reactions of their faces as they realize Cassie is stone sober tell us all we need to know about these guys individually and collectively. Cassie, and the film, repeatedly takes a sledgehammer to the notion of the nice guy. Many people are nice until the right opportunity presents itself. While no one in the film comes out as says there is no such thing as a nice guy, this is a strong case for not giving anyone the benefit of the doubt.
Lest anyone tries to dismiss Promising Young Woman as misandrist propaganda, this movie is about much more than calling out predatory men. There are a lot of great moments in the movie, and one that stands out is an encounter with her college Dean (Connie Britton). Cassie grills Dean Walker about the way she handled Nina’s assault, to which Dean Walker says, “We get accusations like this all the time…I’m sorry I don’t remember your friend Nina, but I can assure you at that time that I looked into it thoroughly.” What happened to Nina is a defining event for everyone involved, yet Cassie carries that burden more than anyone else involved. There are multiple instances where Cassie brings up Nina to old classmates, only to have them play dumb at first. But, as soon as Cassie presses them, “I don’t remember what happened” quickly switches to victim blaming. There is only one person Cassie encounters in the entire film who doesn’t play dumb, and it’s the movie’s only moment of empathy and it feels like a life preserver for Cassie.
Something I’ve been thinking about in relation to Cassie is, of all things, the tagline from David Fincher’s Zodiac, which is ”There is more than one way to lose your life to a killer.” Cassie has been consumed by what happened to Nina, to the point where even Nina’s mother, Mrs. Fisher (Molly Shannon), tells Cassie she needs to move on with her life. Cassie, once on her way to being a doctor, now lives at home and works a job she doesn’t care about, all while doing things she can’t tell anybody about. Nina lost her life in the aftermath of the assault and Cassie has, essentially, sacrificed her own life as well. She’s martyred herself to fight against a complacent and complicit society. Fennell and cinematographer Benjamin Kracun offer up a few images of Cassie in a Christ-like pose and I can’t decide if the loaded imagery is cheap provocation or something meatier. I’m not sure I’m knowledgeable enough to really dive into that, but it’s something I couldn’t help noticing.
Fennell has assembled a strong cast, including Laverne Cox, Bo Burnham, Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Alfred Molina, and Alison Brie, among others. Everyone plays off each other so well, navigating the nuances of each scene, every conversation. Fennell’s script is laser focused, the cast is great, and seeing how they work in tandem is electric. But, make no mistake, Mulligan is highlight of the film. She’s been great for a long time, and her work as Cassie is right there with her best performances. Cassie is a wrecking ball, and Mulligan plays up that toughness without crossing over into caricature. Mulligan shows enough glimpses of Cassie’s softer side, as if Cassie knows there’s another path she could be traveling. Instead, Cassie weaponized her perceived vulnerabilities. Still, the few times she allows herself a sincere moment of softness, it’s immediately soured. The movie hinges on those moments, and Mulligan sells the hell out of them.
Promising Young Woman hits the sweet spot of timeliness and timelessness. It speaks to the moment and to everything that preceded it. It’s stylish and prickly and, even when things aren’t quite clicking, it finds a way to get by on gumption. More than anything, it announces the arrival of an exciting new voice and cements Mulligan as one of her generations best actors (although, her status has been secure for a while now, if we’re being honest). Promising, indeed.