Starring Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham
Written by Emerald Fennell
Directed by Emerald Fennell
Promising Young Woman is not the movie its marketing promises it to be. Sure, plenty of the filmic vignettes– including a sensational montage set to Paris Hilton’s bygone hit “Stars Are Blind”– reflect the candy pop aesthetic and millennial frenzy that makes this a very-21st-century rape-revenge movie. There is, however, a darker undercurrent. A smoldering, angry, and ultimately tragic undercurrent that no number of bubblegum pastels can hide. Promising Young Woman is electric, and Promising Young Woman is sensational.
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a 30-year-old medical school dropout. Motivated by an unknown tragedy in her past, she seeks vengeance against the men in her life, both friend and stranger alike. Chiefly, this takes the form of a semi-#MeToo pantomime at her city’s local bars. Mulligan’s Cassie feigns inebriation and waits for a stranger to take her home. Once they make their advances, she comes to, delivering stern lectures and emasculating stares that render them powerless. Mulligan never actually does anything beyond antagonize these men. Like Hitchcock’s textbook bomb under the table, Fennel adroitly teases out suspense from the question of when Cassie will take her stratagem to the next level.
Cassie does. After the quasi-anachronistic stylings of the first act– Cassie, for instance, routinely dresses in contemporary variants of Donna Reed gowns– the movie shifts both structurally and tonally. Unfurling in a series of five vignettes titled after Roman Numerals, Cassie seeks vengeance on those responsible for the death of her childhood best friend, Nina, in increasingly torturous ways.
The rape-revenge sub-genre has, as of late, fallen out of favor. For every Revenge, there’s the troubling memory of such grindhouse exploitation as Last Stop on the Night Train or I Spit on Your Grave, movies that treated sexual assault as puerile and titillating exhibitions for a largely male audience. They treated rape as sex, and any overarching message was lost in the ugly exploitation of it all. There was, too, the underlying notion that violence begets violence. More than anything, the rape-revenge flicks of yore often equated healing with revenge. Horror is indeed fantasy. There are plenty of survivors who find these movies cathartic in ways most audiences never will. The nature of sexual violence, however, and its tangled web of systemic barriers and legal stalemates, is unequivocally more nuanced and devastating than a castrating pair of garden sheers can hope to amend.
Fennell wisely sidesteps almost all of the violence. She opts instead for psychological warfare that feels more commensurate with raveled emotional fallout from assault. At first a pastel-tinged, New York pop-up version of Revenge, Promising Young Woman is considerably more refined, and ultimately more impactful, than most in the genre. It helps, too, that as Cassie, Carey Mulligan delivers perhaps the most galvanic performance of her career, rivaling her starring turn in 2009’s An Education. Mulligan doesn’t just act– she practically commands the screen en route (if there is any justice) to some much-deserved awards attention.
Promising Young Woman overcomes the storied history of its subgenre and some unwieldy tonal shifts with a subversive narrative streak and an imperative performance from star Carey Mulligan. With just a scrunch of her face or a furrow of her brow, Mulligan tells the audience everything they need to know. Everything they need to know about the criminal justice system. Everything they need to know about sexual violence and the ripples of trauma. And, in a more cinematic sense, everything they need to know about sitting back and watching a truly sensational movie.
Promising Young Woman is like razors in Halloween candy. Dangerous, mythic, and a story worth repeating annually– it’s that good.