PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN ½
2020, R, 113 mins.
Carey Mulligan as Cassie / Bo Burnham as Ryan / Alison Brie as Madison / Adam Brody as Jez / Connie Britton as Dean Walker / Jennifer Coolidge as Susan / Laverne Cox as Gail / Max Greenfield as Joe / Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil / Sam Richardson as Paul / Molly Shannon as Mrs. Fisher / Clancy Brown as Stanley / Chris Lowell as Al Monroe / Steve Monroe as Detective Lincoln WalkerWritten and directed by Emerald Fennell
director Emerald Fennell's rookie effort in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN just
might be one of the most audacious filmmaking debuts of 2020.
As a ultra black comedy and utterly uncompromising MeToo revenge
thriller, it displays uncommon levels of patience in terms of not laying
all of its narrative cards on the table too early in terms of its many
revelations. In this respect,
the film almost becomes a jigsaw puzzle that needs to be put together, and
it respects audiences' attentions spans as a result.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN doesn't progress exactly where one might
expect it when it comes to its genre mishmash, which is to its credit.
On top of that, it aggressively tries to begin conversations about
rape and victim culture in ways that may be uncomfortable for some, but
nevertheless is required to push the discourse further.
And on a big plus, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN features Carey Mulligan's
finest screen performance to date in easily her most challenging and
one of the finest - and most disturbing - opening sequences of recent
memory, which introduces us to the film's thirtysomething protagonist in
Cassie (Mulligan), who was once a promising med student, but dropped out
(due to reasons not immediately revealed) and is now living with her
parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) while working a lowly and
soul sucking job at a neighborhood coffee shop.
She's not shown at her best in the film's early stages, who appears
drunk out of her mind and all alone on a sofa at a local pub.
Some lecherous businessmen debate who will score and have their way
with this woman first, with Jerry (Adam Brody) deciding to lead the
charge. He falsely introduces
himself as a caring chap and offers to take the intoxicated Cassie home.
When he gets her home it's abundantly clear to her that his motives
are anything but pure, and she quickly sits up to bluntly ask what on
earth he's doing. When
Jerry's realizes that Cassie is not actually hammered and instead is hyper
aware, he begins to smell something very wrong.
surely, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN begins to sprinkle in clues here and there
as to Cassie's motives and ultimate end game while posing even more
tantalizing questions. What
is she doing? Why is she
acting sloshed at bars on a nightly basis to lure in predatory men?
How many has she lured in (judging by glimpses in her personal
ledger...an indefinite number). What has she done with these men? What revenge lessons does she impart on them?
Again, Fennell leads us into the story without overly telegraphing
very much, but what we do learn is that she's driven to these acts not
because of what has happened to her personally, but rather due to a
horrendously abusive event that happened to one of her best college
friends in Nina. Mentally
scared by this, Cassie has made it her own personal one woman mission to
seek out the many so-called "nice guys" that secretly will go to
any length to have sex with defenseless women.
Things are thrown for a real loop when she has one of the oddest
meet cutes with a young pediatric doctor named Ryan (Bo Burnham), who she
once went to school with. He
seems innocently smitten with her, but she initially refuses his casual
advances, mostly stemming from the fact that she simply can't trust men.
Eventually, she lets her guard down and starts dating him, which
puts her missions on hold...that is until her dark past comes to haunt her
again to impede on her newfound happiness.
apparent early on in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN that this is anything but a
normal revenge thriller. The premise instantly taps into the timeliness of our current
era where male entitlement and privilege is egregiously used by predators
as a justifiable defense against indefensible actions against women. Many of Cassie's targets are guys that do indeed think they
have done no wrong by trying to coerce women into bed (and frequently
women that are so inebriated that they don't know any better or can't fend
for themselves), but then when they're caught red handed by her they're
reduced to blubbering messes. Cassie's
college friend was just one of these victims who tragically never had her
accusations taking seriously, mostly because those that wrong her were in
places of relative power and with futures, leading to those in authority
thinking that the sufferer's claims were much ado about nothing.
Cassie isn't just attacking slimy men, but system of power that
prop up said slimy men. And
when she does get her comeuppance in multiple scenes sprinkled throughout
the film it's chillingly satisfying.
are varied, like, for instance, two women that, ironically enough, utterly
failed to protect her fallen friend back in day at college.
There's Madison (Alison Brie), who was friends with Nina, but then
turned a blind eye to her claims of abuse by mutual classmates.
Then there's the dean of the school they all attended (Connie
Britton), who takes a meeting with Cassie thinking that she wants to
return to full time studies, but then shockingly discovers that she has
some dirt on her that proved that she did next to nothing to ensure Nina's
health and protection (it's a brilliantly staged and macabre moment).
It's also during these key moments in the film when you really grow
to appreciate the scope of Mulligan's very layered and thanklessly tricky
performance as Cassie. She
not only has to evoke a woman that has gone through devastating grief
during her young adulthood, but also one that evolves beyond being damaged
goods and into a ferociously empowered and manipulative mind warper that
somehow commands our understanding and rooting interests even when she
displays some sociopathic behavior. The
finest thing about Mulligan's tour de force work here is that she never
over telegraphs Cassie's as a crazy woman driven by fanatical obsession;
she seems, for the most part, cold, calculated, and driven, and her poker
faced stoicism while confronting her male targets makes her almost more
wildly frightening to them.
I also liked
Burnham's solid work here as Ryan, who has to portray a love interest for
Cassie without - shall we say - succumbing to the most overused
conventions of such a stock character (and if his name rings a bell he was
the director of one of the best coming of age films of the last several
years in 2018's EIGHTH GRADE). Their relationship arc - as is the case with much of the main
story itself - never really goes down a preordained path, and PROMISING
YOUNG WOMAN builds to some absolutely nightmarish plot twists that, in
turn, plateaus towards an utterly enthralling climax and ultimate ending
that some viewers will either embrace for its raw gustiness or despise for
how it completely tosses away any notions of a "happy ending"
for any of these characters. It's
a hard section of the film to describe without going into blatant spoiler
territory, other than to say that Cassie - fully driven by a renewed focus
on her cause and at the peak of her venomous hostility - does have a tense
confrontation with Nina's main abuser; it leads audiences in one direction
and then pulls the rug out from under them by giving us a resolution that
I doubt anyone was expecting. Days
after screening this film I'm still internally debating whether or not it
fully works, but there's no denying Fennell's steadfast commitment in
simply going places that few other directors - veterans or not - would