A film review by Craig J. Koban January 25, 2021

RANK# 16

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN jjj

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 Walker

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell

Actor turned 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 layered role. 

Fennell crafts 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. 

Slowly but 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. 

 

 

It's very 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. 

Cassie's targets 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 dare to.

All in all, I was greatly taken in with all of the creative risks that PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN took, not to mention that it migrates through some very incongruent tonal ranges with relative smoothness (it opens with a promise of being a bloody revenge-fuelled romp...and then into elements of social/cultural  satire...and then into romcom territory...and then back to the revenge thriller...and so on).  I'd love to say that it all sticks together perfectly well, but Fennell sometimes does bite off more than she can chew on a level of execution discipline: The film is a bit too long and bloated for its own good, and some scenes are played broadly whereas others are almost too sinister to watch.  I can certainly understand how some might become confused as to Fennell's own motives (her film sometimes teeters between being tongue-in-cheek and exploitative, and in-between that it wants to preach a worthy message of feminist power against institutions that hold them back...there's a lot going on here to process and reflect on).  But she certainly has crafted a thoroughly engrossing zeitgeist defining genre picture that finds genuinely innovative ways to turn stale genre gears.  There have been countless damaged women driven to vengeance thrillers before, but very few like this.  And PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN's equal parts subversive, scandalous and ballsy ending will be talked about for years; it has helped cement Fennell as a filmmaker to watch out for, that much is certain. 

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