Promising Young Woman. It may be the most talked about movie to have come out of 2020. From Sundance hit to becoming one of the year’s many delayed theatrical releases, the producers and creators of Promising Young Woman have likely been on a rollercoaster of emotions. Having been out to the public since December, the reviews have been mostly glowing. Carey Mulligan’s performance is being called a career-best, and the film carries plenty of momentum heading into Oscars season. So, what is behind all of the hype for the directorial debut from Emerald Fennell? Let me, who’s finally had the pleasure of seeing the movie, try to explain.
A #MeToo era revenge thriller, Promising Young Woman follows Cassie, barista by day, vigilante against sexual assault by night. Her routine for teaching the “nice guys” of the world a lesson is simple: she goes to a club or bar alone, pretends to be drunk, and waits for them to take advantage of her and lure her home. Once the men begin non-consensually making their moves on Cassie, she “sobers up”, changing their attitude real quick. Cassie doesn’t do much beyond that, leaving the men with their guilty conscious. When an old colleague shows up in Cassie’s life again, she is given the ultimate opportunity to right the wrongs of the past which still haunt her years later.
Promising Young Woman is a stylized film that looks like candy and tastes bittersweet. From the outfits Cassie wears, to the glow of the lights in the club and extreme use of pink, director Emerald Fennell has designed a colorfully bright film that stands in stark contrast with its dark subject material. Paris Hilton or a variation of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” could be playing, and in the next moment Cassie could be bashing some guy’s taillights in or plotting something seriously sociopathic. The film has a vividly chaotic energy comparable to Birds of Prey.
Carey Mulligan (Drive, The Great Gatsby) deserves all the praise she is receiving. She is a force to be reckoned with and puts on a show. Her ability to flip from “intoxication” to sobriety is eerily convincing, and she can win our hearts as quickly as she can frighten us. The character of Cassie is a complex character study on how trauma can impact someone’s ability to lead a normal life, and Mulligan is capable of dishing out the emotional range required for the role. Cassie is an addict. She uses her acts of justice against predatory men as a coping mechanism, and as soon as she looks to be moving on, she relapses into her own downfall. Bo Burnham is also great as Ryan, the quasi-romantic lead of the film. Burnham is funny as expected, but he also offers a level of depth to his character who could’ve been as one-dimensional as most of the other men in the film. Alfred Molina has a notable cameo as well.
Where Promising Young Woman is running into controversy is in its ending. When tackling such sensitive and weighty subject matter involving rape/sexual assault, it is the responsibility of the filmmaker to be emotionally knowledgeable of real-life victims and tell an honest story. Being a female filmmaker in Hollywood, Emerald Fennell has a personal stake in the #MeToo movement. Whether or not she has experienced harassment herself, she works in an industry infamous for it. Because of this, you’d think Fennell’s final message in Promising Young Woman would be more of a victory for victims of sexual violence. However, it turns out Fennell is too busy trying to subvert the audience expectations of the revenge genre that she undermines any potential catharsis for victims. Fennell’s intentions are commendable, as she recognizes the inadequacy of law enforcement in addressing sexual assault cases, and the nature of complicity in such cases, but her ending may be more harmful than it is helpful. Promising Young Woman concludes with a nod that suggests justice has been served, but has it? I’m not going to reveal spoilers, but I will say that statement is debatable. At first, I thought I liked the resolution to the movie. After reading some of the criticisms from actual victims on the film’s ending, I understand where it could’ve been improved.
Violation, directed by Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer, is another recently released rape revenge thriller. I watched it at this year’s 2021 Sundance Film Festival and briefly discussed it here. Despite its R-rating and trailers hinting at possibly violent revenge enacted by Cassie, Promising Young Woman is a bloodless picture. There isn’t much in the way of disturbing content we witness. Fennell prefers the art of insinuation, using old photographs and leaving things unsaid. The actual act of rape included in the film is heard, rather than seen. Violation, on the other hand, is graphic. We see and listen to our female protagonist be sexually taken advantage of, and her revenge is captured in strangulating, limb-cutting fashion. For those who felt Promising Young Woman did not go far enough, or were left unsatisfied with its ending, I recommend Violation as a far less sunny alternative.
Promising Young Woman is exceptionally entertaining. The performances from the cast are terrific and high-energy. Emerald Fennell proves to be a promising young director with sugarcoated flair. Her film will raise some important discussions, but in the end is a mixed bag in its treatment of the story’s prevailing topic.