Promising Young Woman (2020)
“I’m a gentleman,” says a man at his bachelor party, trying to bashfully turn down any sexual antics with the women paid to entertain him and his friends for one boozy night. He’s also trying to indicate he’s “not like those other guys” and genuinely respects women. He gets it. “Well,” says the woman in the shiny fetish outfit, “I’ll have you know in my experiences that ‘gentlemen’ can often be the worst.” This line summarizes Promising Young Woman, a revenge thriller in a post-Me Too era that is unsparing to all those who would proudly say, “Well, I support women.”
Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) was the top of her class at med school. Then her best friend was sexually assaulted at a party while she was inebriated, which allows the university to paint her as guilty and the accused as blameless (“What do you expect when you get drunk?” kind of victim-shaming). Years later, Cassandra has never been the same. She poses as a drunk at clubs and waits for her knight in shining armor to take her home, and often these modern men of chivalry prove to be creeps looking to take advantage of women and in needing of some harsh medicine.
This is a movie that walks a fine line to stay out of the shadow of becoming just another exploitation film with a higher gloss. I was yelling at the screen early about the choices men were making with susceptible women in their care. Admittedly, it plays upon that icky genre and taps into our inherent feelings associated with it as well as vengeance thrillers, and writer/director Emerald Fennell (TV’s Killing Eve) smartly subverts our expectations and loyalties. We want Cassandra to achieve her righteous vengeance regardless of the moral or psychological effect it has upon her because vengeance is satisfying. We want to see bad people who have escaped punishment suffer, but Fennell challenges the audience to see how far we’re willing to go for this goal. There are moments where it appears that Cassandra is going to go the extra step to antagonize her targets, and this might involve facilitating other innocent women into potential danger. It’s a sharp turn that asks the audience how badly they want to hold onto that righteous sense of indignation. Do all ends justify the means? Now I won’t confirm whether or not Cassandra follows through for the sake of spoilers but this is one very knowing movie about how to make its audience uncomfortable. Obviously, dealing with the subject of sexual assault and predatory men, it should be uncomfortable because of the nature of the subject, but Fennell has a wicked sense of when to twist her audience into knots. She doesn’t let anyone off the hook easily and that includes her heroine and those close to her. Nobody looks clean here. It makes for a truly surprising experience. When I say that Promising Young Woman makes some bold choices, it really makes some bold choices. There were points I was sighing heavily and others where I was stunned silent. It brought to mind No Country for Old Men. The commitment that Fennell has to her excoriating artistic vision is startlingly provocative and effective.
One early scene stood out to me and let me know that Promising Young Woman was going to have more on its mind than bloodshed. Cassandra is walking home from a night out in her same soiled clothing and eating a sloppy hotdog with ketchup running down her body. A group of construction workers watch her and begin yelling from across the street, harassing her with unwanted sexual advances while they yuk it up. Cassandra stops, turns her head, and simply stares them down. She doesn’t glare at them or shout at them; all she does is look in silence. The workers get quiet very fast and then after several seconds they become angry and defensive, uncomfortable from her attention, and they walk away insulting her. Didn’t they want her attention? Weren’t they boasting? By merely drawing her focus onto these men and making them mildly reflective of their behavior they became uncomfortable and elected to leave. This scene only plays out for like twenty seconds and yet it serves as a symbol for what Fennell has planned with the rest of her thriller. She is going to take what you want and make you re-examine it with a fresh perspective that might just make you rather uneasy and disgusted with yourself.
The first half of the movie establishes a routine that explains what Cassandra has been doing since dropping out of med school. She’s never been able to move on from the trauma of her past and so she seeks out new potential perpetrators to inflict pain upon or scare straight through tests. By the second incident, we adjust to her formula and lie in wait for Cassandra to strike back. She’s the smartest person in the room and it’s deliciously enjoyable to watch her enact her plans. This avenging angel routine runs into a roadblock when she reunites with a friend from med school, Ryan (Bo Burnham), a pediatric surgeon. They share a meet cute that involves Ryan drinking a coffee that Cassandra has spit into as a declarative sign of his interest (trust me, I’m making it sound far creepier than it plays onscreen). They go on several dates and have a palpable romantic chemistry together. This is aided by Fennell’s excellent dialogue, which can be cutting when it needs to and also supremely charming when it wants to be. It’s a peculiar rom-com but on its own terms, including unashamedly reclaiming a forgettable Paris Hilton pop song with full sincerity. At this point, Promising Young Woman is sizing up a choice between following vengeance and following romance. It’s a formulaic fork in the road and Fennell completely understands this, as she’s also testing the audience how much they are willing to sacrifice to see Cassandra check off her guilty names. This storyline doesn’t feel like a cheap alternative either. I liked Ryan and Cassandra together. However, Fennell stays true to her poison-tipped plans and this storyline becomes another chapter in her larger thesis on the condemnation of “boys will be boys” rationalization.
There is another scene worthy of being hailed because it goes against your and the character’s expectations (some spoilers). Cassandra tracks down the lawyer responsible for defending the university and discrediting her friend once she came forward with her rape accusation. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is this man and he’s quite antsy because he has been waiting for months for a visitor he anticipated would inevitably arrive. He’s been let go from his firm after having what they refer to as a “psychotic break” and what he refers to as a crisis of conscience. He’s made a career over sliming victims’ reputations, a fact he confesses has been made infinitely easier by modern technology. “We used to have to go digging through the trash,” he says, “But now all we need is one picture on Facebook of the girl at a party and you’ve got jury doubt.” Cassandra is taken aback by how eager this man is, not for absolution which he believes he will never earn, but to be punished. It’s not like a weird fetish but a genuine accounting of what he feels he deserves. It’s a short scene but it challenges Cassandra and the audience about the potential of redemption and forgiveness. This is what she wants after all, people to account for their part in the injustice that happened to her friend and to make amends for their guilt.
Mulligan is ferocious and on another level with this performance. She’s listed as a producer so I assume she had a personal connection with the material because she feels so aligned with the character that she can make you shudder. Mulligan has been an enchanting and empathetic actress since her breakout in 2009’s An Education, the source of her lone Oscar nomination. I’ve never seen her quite like this before. She has a natural sad-eyed expression, which made her perfect for Daisy Buchannan in the new Great Gatsby. With this role, she’s taken those natural sad-cute instincts and carved them out and replaced it with bile. Mulligan gets to play multiple false versions of Cassandra as she adopts disguises and personas to dupe her prey. This also makes the viewer subconsciously question which version they see is the real Cassandra. Is it a distortion upon a distortion? How well can we ever get to know this woman? I think Mulligan is most deserving of her second Academy Award nomination for this bracing, incendiary turn.
This is Fennell’s directorial debut and it will not be her last time in the director’s chair. Her command of pace and visuals can be sneaky good, framing figures to squeeze in potent symbolism as well as ratchet up tension and discomfort. The visuals can also be comedic poetry, like the opening images of men in khakis gyrating and thrusting on a dance floor. She also demonstrates supreme restraint where needed. The sexual assaults of past and present are never visualized but they are not mitigated either. She also has a tremendous ear for music. This soundtrack is sensational from the club bangers to the old timey country ditties. It feels as exceptionally selected as any Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino movie soundtrack. The score by Anthony Willis is deeply emotive with its use of strings and cello. They deliver a cello cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and it’s as if the filmmakers made this choice specifically for me.
If there is one slight downside, I’d have to say many of the supporting characters are under developed. There are plenty of famous faces in this enterprise, like Adam Brody, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but most of them are deposed for a scene and then vanish. It starts to feel like a series of guest appearances from actors as they’re passing through town. Alison Brie (Happiest Season) has a longer and slightly more nuanced part as a former college friend who betrayed Cassandra when she needed her most. This character, along with Birtton’s school dean, illustrate that just because you happen to be a woman does not automatically mean you will be a helpful ally. I view it less as a snide “girls can be bad too” equivalency and more an indication just how insidious and prevalent rape culture can be and condition people into gross excuse-making complacency. I will say that it was nice to have Clancy Brown play a normal dad role and he was sweet too.
Beware, men of the world, the next time you size up a pretty young thing who looks meek and helpless. Promising Young Woman wears the skin of an exploitation movie but it’s so much more. Fennell has created a tart, twisted, and powerful film that is coursing with righteous fury. It’s a female revenge vehicle but with far, far more ambition than simply providing tingles to baser instincts. The artistry here is special and transforms the iconography of exploitation movies into a contemplative and jolting experience. Promising Young Woman is a definite conversation-starter and the first thing you might say upon its conclusion is a breathless exclamation of, “Wow.”
Nate’s Grade: A-
Posted on December 14, 2020, in 2020 Movies and tagged adam brody, bo burnham, carey mulligan, christopher mintz-plasse, clancy brown, connie britton, dar, dark, drama, indie, revenge, romance, sam richardson, strong heroine, thriller. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.
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