Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Every now and then, the world shifts to become more aware of an important social issue. Whenever those issues are depicted on film, it’s clear they’ve crossed over into our collective consciousness. In most cases, there’s always one notable film that casts the first stone, generally discussing the matter very loudly. This may annoy viewers who don’t like being preached to, but it’s necessary in order to progress social constructs forward. We needed a film like Brokeback Mountain (2005) in order to get Moonlight (2016), just as we needed a film like Glory (1989) in order to get 12 Years a Slave (2013). In recent years, there’s been a growing awareness around sexual assault, so naturally the world of cinema would eventually address it head on. Emerald Fennell’s dark-comedy/thriller Promising Young Woman (2020) is arguably the most direct analysis yet.
30-year-old Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a Med School dropout still living with her parents. She is intelligent, cold and misanthropic, apparently wasting her time working at a coffee shop and clubbing until the sun rises. Every week, Cassie wanders into a club and gets seemingly blind drunk, only to then be taken home by a ‘supposed nice guy’ looking to take advantage of her. However, it’s all a carefully constructed act, as Cassie reveals herself to be perfectly sober right when her target tries to get frisky. Naturally, this causes them to get a little freaked, since they were expecting to get an easy lay with a drunk girl. Cassie isn’t so easy, instead going through all of this in order to expose how exploitative these men truly are. She fashions herself as an avenging angel, getting them to reveal their wrongdoing by giving them a good scare.
Judging from the marketing, Promising Young Woman appears to be a basic revenge story, but the film itself is oddly different from that expectation. As such, the final product is far more interesting. On the surface, it seems like a darkly comical story about a sociopathic yet righteous anti-hero making victims out of those who’d victimise women. While that’s certainly still part of the narrative tone, the meat of the film is slightly more complicated, as there’s a genuine attempt to address the sombre reality of sexual abuse. If this had been exactly as advertised, it would probably have commonalities with the more indulgent aspects of revenge fantasies like Django Unchained (2012). In contrast, Promising Young Woman resists the urge to make a joke out of its dicier aspects.
As it stands, Director Emerald Fennell has delivered a revenge fantasy where we don’t have to rationalise our hero committing violence to make a point. Subsequently, Cassie is a delicately constructed human being first, and a hard-boiled vigilante second. We definitely get to see some delightfully malicious schemes play out, but not before spending necessary time developing the sympathetic reasons behind them. Fennell is so precise with her story construction that she even has time to give the opposing sides some dimension. To be clear, we aren’t made to sympathise with abusers as they are still taken to task, but we are effectively shown why these people see themselves as faultless. This makes the middle stretch particularly fascinating to watch, but the nuance does create some unintended bumps in the character development.
By focusing on the genuine humanity of the characters, the film goes to some amazing places while also confusing its internal logic. We spend quite a lot of time unpacking the depths of Cassie’s heart and mind, but some of that wonderful groundwork is undone as soon as the shocking twists occur. Granted, it propels Cassie down an appropriate and exciting storytelling path, but there’s a sense that some very important drama was glossed over in order to get to the tense action. It was probably done to keep the film from getting too long, but if the audience is narratively engaged by the central conflict, they will allow for some extra breathing room. Happily, the final act takes such an unexpected turn that you can’t help but applaud Fennell’s staggering bravery.
With that in mind, the whole film has an air of risk to it, as this is relatively uncharted territory in modern cinema. Sure, films like The Accused (1988), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) and Una (2016) have all unpacked sexual abuse, but none tackle the systemic elements of the issue quite like Fennell does here. These are very recent discussions, and Fennell makes sure that all the most current points are brought up clearly. It’s powerful, it’s not messing around and it’s sure to be heard. To achieve this, the dialogue is written with very little subtlety, as characters say exactly what they mean and what we are supposed to get from it. This may make things feel less complex than they actually are, but it’s a necessary simplification in order to make the point loud and clear.
Thankfully, the minor moments of clunky dialogue are smoothed over by the talented cast. Fennell has assembled a fascinating roster of respected character actors, including Adam Brody, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. All of these stars have proven their worth in leading roles, yet they all give their full attention to small yet pivotal parts here. It’s always satisfying to see such big names happily put effort into cameo roles, thus making their moments especially memorable. Regardless, the film belongs to Carey Mulligan, who brilliantly shoulders the drama, the humour and the intensity. Mulligan has been in many notable films, but it wasn’t until this performance that she’s really been allowed to sink her teeth into her work.
In the context of the #METOO movement, there’s a palpable sense that this film is going to start a trend. Promising Young Woman, is a film that shows us there’s plenty more to say about the issues it examines. It has raised the bar, just like Brokeback Mountain and Glory did. Hopefully Promising Young Woman has also opened the doors for some future masterpieces down the track.
Best way to watch it: While keeping your hands to yourself.