There are a number of amazing things about writer/director Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman.” Starring Carey Mulligan—whose performance is undoubtedly amazing thing number one—this is the story of a woman whose life was derailed in medical school following a rape. It is a movie which may hold few huge surprises, but where every event builds towards a complete picture that the audience can’t quite see at the beginning. It is full of truly great sets and costumes and lighting and makeup, but they all work in service of, and take a backseat to, the tale of revenge.
I have been admonished—repeatedly—to not spoil the movie, and so out of an abundance of caution, I won’t provide many of the details here, but it doesn’t take a savvy viewer to know what’s going to happen in “Promising Young Woman.” That’s not what it’s about. The movie is about Cassie (Mulligan) and the way in which she’s dealt with the events that caused her to drop out of medical school. What keeps the viewer hooked is Mulligan. She gives us a Cassie who is clearly unwell and whose life choices in roughly the decade after leaving medical school haven’t improved her situation. She is offering a sort of vigilante-style justice for people who richly deserve it, and yet is doing so because of her own troubles.
Essentially, Cassie goes out on a regular basis, pretends to be drunk, and let’s men take her home. At some point during these evenings, she reveals her true, sober, state and makes the men face their actions (this is all in the trailer, it’s no spoiler). It’s chilling and horrifying and, yes, funny.
Mulligan and Fennell make us cringe as the men attempt to commit sexual assault or worse. They make us cheer as Cassie upends their plans. They make us hurt for Cassie herself even as she stops these men in their tracks. We don’t feel that way because Cassie is in the wrong, but rather because she wouldn’t be doing it if she didn’t have an incredible level of pain in her heart. Cassie is unwell, there can be no doubt about that. It is, in no small part, her being unwell, her having that pain, that causes her actions. We want to see her give these men their comeuppance, but we want her to be better at the same time. We can’t have both and it’s heartbreaking.
Early on in the film, Cassie is unexpectedly reintroduced to Ryan (Bo Burnham), who was in medical school with her. The two form a relationship and Cassie is inexorably brought closer to the events of her past, leading us to have a grater understand of exactly what happened and the aftermath (which clearly is still unfolding). We see Cassie confront some of the individuals who figured in the events and watch as both they and she learn more and understand more.
The set of characters is easily broken down into those who are relative constants in the film and Cassie’s life and those who flit in and out. Chiefly, the constants are Cassie’s parents, Susan (Jennifer Coolidge) and Stanley (Clancy Brown), as well as her boss, Gail (Laverne Cox). As for those who appear for a moment or two, we get Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Gabriel Oliva, Max Greenfield, Christopher Lowell, and more.
So, another amazing thing – they are all memorable, they all add to the movie, and yet they are all completely outshined (if that’s the right word in such a film) by Mulligan. We see the pain of Cassie’s parents, knowing that she is now living at home and working in a coffee shop when she was about to be a doctor; knowing that their daughter was forever changed. We see Gail, pushing her employee for bigger and better things, sensing that upset underneath. We see horrific realizations appear on some faces and true regrets on others and Mulligan doesn’t diminish them, but is still always the center.
It would be one thing for this tale of revenge and sadness to simply feature great performances, but it’s more than that. As noted in the opening paragraph, this is an horrific story that has beautiful production design. It is a gorgeous movie to watch and while that, in other hands, may be at odds with tale being told, here it is not. There is something very right in the wrong nature of it all, in the smile-inducing terror. The movie even has a killer soundtrack.
Put simply, “Promising Young Woman” fires on all cylinders.
And here it is, the amazing thing that occurs when all the other amazing things are tied together with this story – this is a completely mesmerizing film about a totally repulsive thing. It is vicious and cruel and demoralizing and funny and inspirational.
Not a movie for everyone, “Promising Young Woman” has lesson that is universal. It is the right movie with the right director and the right cast and somehow there’s almost something disgustingly fitting in its coming out when we can’t all go to the theater to see it.
photo credit: Focus Features