Film Review: Promising Young Woman
Director: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Laverne Cox, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon
Running Time: 113
Australian Distributor: Roadshow Films
There have been many angry films made over the past twelve months – activist documentaries on one side, morally reprehensible bile-spewing exploitation on the other – but there is an even-keeled nature to even the most socially progressive films being made these days. The anger has moved online, I suppose, and mainstream genre films have moved to doing s**t like having a character spout “F**k rich people!” to apparent standing ovations.
Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, however, is a rape-revenge film filled with righteous anger, the likes of which is rarely seen in movies as outwardly mainstream as this. Promising Young Woman’s venom is so propulsive, in fact, that it practically overcomes all of the film’s shortcomings.
Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a woman in her 30s who lives with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and works at a coffee shop. We soon learn that she was headed for a promising career in medicine but dropped out, choosing instead to wile away the days at the café. Cassie, however, has another “pastime”: she goes to bars alone and pretends to be blackout drunk until some “nice guy” offers to take her home, after which they inevitably attempt to assault her, prompting her to drop the act and take her revenge.
Cassie is doing all of this to avenge her best friend Nina, who took her own life sometime before the events of the film after being raped at a college party and subsequently shoved through the legal system to no avail. As Cassie spends her days exacting random revenge, her plan comes into sharper focus when she reconnects with a former classmate (Bo Burnham).
Though Promising Young Woman certainly looks like a comedy, and there are plenty of mainly comedic performers in the cast, it’s a film that laughs through gritted teeth. Fennell is entirely unsparing in her depiction of various toxic male behaviours — from entitlement to manipulative rage to “negging” — and their treatment comes across as queasily comic.
And so Promising Young Woman becomes an uncompromising exploration of the fallout and ripple effects of sexual assault as they pertain not to the victim (who isn’t even around anymore) but to the people around her. For many of them, the assault is simply a bad, repressed memory.
Honestly, I find Promising Young Woman’s dark bursts of anger and unsuppressed rage rather refreshing. It is a film that barrels to a seemingly inevitably bleak conclusion that’s both gutsy and somewhat disappointing. It’s hard to talk about this movie without talking about its ending.
I have no qualms about what happens at the end of Promising Young Woman, but I can’t say I’m crazy about how it happens and the pat way in which justice is ultimately served.
Emerald Fennell isn’t interested in anything about Promising Young Woman falling into easy categories — some of it does, of course, and it all but falls apart at the end — but in a landscape where films are increasingly taking the easy way out, Promising Young Woman stands out.
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