Promising Young Woman Carey Mulligan Emerald Fennell

The righteous anger in Promising Young Woman is a sight for sore eyes

Emerald Fennell’s rape-revenge comedy-thriller is angry, uncompromising and cathartic.

One would assume that, this being one of the most volatile, fucked-up and dark periods in modern history, our films would reflect this with the kind of bile and anger that typified the cinema of the ’60s and ’70s. Obviously, there are angry films being made in 2021 — activist documentaries on one side, morally reprehensible bile-spewing exploitation on the other — but there is an even-keeled nature to even the most socially progressive films being made these days. The anger has moved online, I suppose, and mainstream genre films have moved to doing shit like having a character spout “Fuck rich people!” to apparent standing ovations.

Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, however, is a rape-revenge film filled with righteous anger, the likes of which is rarely seen in movies as outwardly mainstream as this. Promising Young Woman’s venom is so propulsive, in fact, that it practically overcomes all of the film’s shortcomings.

Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a woman in her 30s who lives with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and works at a coffee shop. We soon learn that she was headed for a promising career in medicine but dropped out, choosing instead to wile away the days at the café. Cassie, however, has another “pastime”: she goes to bars alone and pretends to be blackout drunk until some “nice guy” offers to take her home, after which they inevitably attempt to assault her, prompting her to drop the act and take her revenge. (The revenge isn’t always clear, though she returns from the first of these we see with blood running down her arm, so you can infer what you’d like.)

Cassie is doing all of this to avenge her best friend Nina, who took her own life sometime before the events of the film after being raped at a college party and subsequently shoved through the legal system to no avail. As Cassie spends her days exacting random revenge, her plan comes into sharper focus when she reconnects with a former classmate (Bo Burnham).

Fennell combines bright cinematography and bursts of symmetrical, early 2000s Sundance-hopeful framing with a livewire of unsuppressed rage. Though Promising Young Woman certainly looks like a comedy, and there are plenty of mainly comedic performers in the cast, it’s a film that laughs through gritted teeth. Fennell is entirely unsparing in her depiction of various toxic male behaviours — from entitlement to manipulative rage to “negging” — and their treatment comes across as queasily comic. (In that sense, Fennell finds a simpatico spirit in Burnham, whose own film Eighth Grade is a masterclass in making me laugh and claw my own eyes out at the same time.) As the film progresses, however, it begins to mirror Cassie’s own thought process — while these 1:1 revenge scenarios may be gratifying in the short term, they won’t bring about actual change and are perhaps doomed to come to an end. (There are only so many bars and so many dudes where Cassie lives, after all.) Cassie is just one person out to avenge another, and that kind of painstaking effort, even deployed daily, simply cannot engender permanent change.

And so Promising Young Woman becomes an uncompromising exploration of the fallout and ripple effects of sexual assault as they pertain not to the victim (who isn’t even around anymore) but to the people around her. For many of them, the assault is simply a bad, repressed memory; it’s something they’ve written off or justified to themselves as a fragment of the past. But for others, like the lawyer played by Alfred Molina, it was a turning point whether they realized it or not.

There’s obviously something timely about what’s discussed here, but to say that Promising Young Woman is a #MeToo film would be to assume that sexual assault became a thing around 2016. It’s a little zeitgeisty in spots (it’s hard to imagine how a movie about this topic wouldn’t be) but it’s rare that a film can be both entertaining and profoundly upsetting at the same time. 

Honestly, I find Promising Young Woman’s dark bursts of anger and unsuppressed rage rather refreshing. Given the relatively mainstream cast and the film’s tendency to turn towards quasi-Wes Anderson directorial choices and poptimist music cues (including Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind”), one almost assumes that the film is setting itself up for polite, elegant redemption. It is not. It is a film that barrels to a seemingly inevitably bleak conclusion that’s both gutsy and somewhat disappointing. It’s hard to talk about this movie without talking about its ending. Ever since the film played Sundance early last year, the ending has been the film’s most controversial aspect. I have no qualms about what happens at the end of Promising Young Woman, but I can’t say I’m crazy about how it happens and the pat way in which justice is ultimately served. Let me say it like this: the last 20 minutes of Promising Young Woman recall some of the more “all the little ducks in a row” water-cooler twist endings of the ’90s.

Films like Promising Young Woman are becoming increasingly rare these days. Though rape-revenge films have rightfully moved away from the trenchcoat / grindhouse zone into arthouse and festival settings (recent examples include Violation and Revenge), they inevitably come packaged in Heavy Movie About A Heavy Subject wrapping paper. Emerald Fennell isn’t interested in anything about Promising Young Woman falling into easy categories — some of it does, of course, and it all but falls apart at the end — but in a landscape where films are increasingly taking the easy way out, Promising Young Woman stands out. ■

Promising Young Woman is available on VOD as of Friday, Jan. 15. For more details about the film, visit its IMDB page. Watch the trailer below:

Promising Young Woman by Emerald Fennell starring Carey Mulligan

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