REVIEW: Promising Young Woman [2020]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 113 minutes
    Release Date: December 25th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Focus Features
    Director(s): Emerald Fennell
    Writer(s): Emerald Fennell

You didn’t think this was the end, did you?

Has anyone created a drinking game for Emerald Fennell‘s audacious feature directorial debut Promising Young Woman yet? If not, I’m going to pitch that it surround the universal facial tic Cassandra Thomas’ (Carey Mulligan) prey deliver upon saying something they mean before floundering in an attempt to backtrack because that thing shouldn’t be said aloud. It’s usually accompanied by an extended “Uhhh” or “Wait a second” or “What I mean is”—the hamster wheel inside their brains working overtime to salvage the unsalvageable right before Cassie strikes. We see it with the men she entraps the second she reveals she isn’t actually drunk and with the women when they prove just how willing they are to act against their own self interests for the patriarchy. Drink.

Get drunk if you want too. That’s your right. Being drunk doesn’t make you fair game for any self-ascribed “gentlemen” to feign worry before pouncing as though their libido is some uncontrollable beast taking over their motor functions. This is the lesson Cassie hopes to imbue in the countless men she lets stalk her each week at nightclubs. She’ll sit helplessly at the bar or on a couch and wait to see who’s willing to walk over and make his move. He’ll take her to his home, give her another drink, and shush her quiet pleas to stop while removing her clothes. Then, and only then, is when she finally raises her head to lucidly ask what it is he thinks he’s doing. What comes next is unknown.

And that’s intentional. Does she kill these men? Does she castrate them? One cut to black after Jerry (Adam Brody) is jogged awake to the severity of his situation (it was, of course, always severe, but he refused to acknowledge as much until his safety was the one being compromised) finds Cassie walking home with what appears to be blood on her top. It has us thinking the worst. Her steely gaze to get the catcalling construction workers across the street to become so uncomfortable that they ostensibly run away only feeds that assumption. But is bodily harm the worst revenge she can perform? Is taking them off the board worse than leaving them alive to remember? Perhaps seeing their fear and shame is a far better reward.

So she carries on with her mission to honor a childhood friend who succumbed to the horror Cassie hopes to upend. Will the scales ever be balanced? No. She could open the eyes of a different man every night for the rest of her life and still not make a dent in the number of non-consensual sexual encounters that occur daily in this country alone. But each of those nights will end up having one less victim because she allowed herself to leave on that man’s arm instead of someone who could have been hurt. It doesn’t leave Cassie much room to have her own life—something her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) desperately want—but that’s okay. How could she trust a man anyway?

Enter Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham). He recognizes her from med school at the coffee shop where she works with friend Gail (Laverne Cox). They had classes together. Him, her, and Nina—the friend she’s avenging. Ryan seems nice. He listens to Cassie’s wants, makes her laugh, and does whatever’s possible to make her feel comfortable in whatever situation they find themselves. Maybe “normalcy” is still attainable. That he knew her before these recent years of vigilantism means she can focus on being herself around him. It won’t be perfect since anxieties so intrinsically connected to interactions with the opposite sex don’t simply disappear, but perhaps it is time to finally move on. She just might have if he didn’t mention Madison (Alison Brie) and Al (Chris Lowell).

This is where Promising Young Woman finds its effective fork in the road. Cassie wants to believe Ryan is a good guy, but she also wants to turn her sights from random douchebags onto the people who did so much harm to her BFF. So Fennell lets her become two versions of herself: Cassie 1.0 dancing in drugstores with her new boyfriend and Cassie 2.0 systematically confronting everyone with a malicious role in what transpired back in school. Will the two be able to exist simultaneously? Will the joy of the first spill over into the rage of the second to help quell the flames? Or will that rage bleed over to suffocate the joy? And how far will she go now that her targets are known entities?

Early screening opportunities request vagueness where it comes to plot spoilers for good reason since where Cassie goes on these diverging roads is best experienced in the moment without any advance knowledge. It’s not always perfect, but Fennell has a knack for building expectations so extreme that her refusal to make good on them hits you like a punch in the gut. To ratchet up the delicious desire for vengeance only to flip the table and have a prospective victim prove their guilt towards past actions is hurting them more than she ever could keeps us on our toes and our emotions vulnerable. Let’s just say it’s easy to hate Connie Britton and Brie despite their tears and easier to truly pity Alfred Molina for his.

And Mulligan is fantastic through it all. Her wry smile and dime turns from helpless to sociopathic are enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. That Fennell is able to shroud what Cassie does afterwards in the dark for as long as she does is both a testament to the storytelling and Mulligan’s performance for retaining our undivided attention throughout the uncertainty. But she’s also as good or better during the happier times besides Burnham. Their rapport can’t help but get you laughing and its effect on Cassie carries over into the evolving dynamic between her and her parents to really expose the true weight and impact of the psychological turmoil she’s been drowning in by herself. We’re constantly laughing without ever forgetting her pain.

As far as the ending goes: many people have hinged their overall feelings about the whole on the third act. It’s understandable too since what happens does prove pretty polarizing. No matter which side of the fence you fall on, however, I don’t think you can argue it isn’t an authentic progression of events. The ways in which men reveal their true selves despite our best hopes and how they loyally stick together (a scene where Max Greenfield comforts Lowell is played with the perfect amount of satirical melodrama) aren’t far-fetched. That Cassie is prepared for any and every outcome from the first moment we meet her proves as much. Until men acknowledge their misogyny and/or complicity, they shouldn’t be trusted. No “career” is worth an innocent life.

[1] Carey Mulligan stars as ‘Cassandra’ in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features
[2] Carey Mulligan (front) stars as ‘Cassandra’ and Bo Burnham (back) stars as ‘Ryan“ in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit : Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features
[3] Carey Mulligan stars as ‘Cassandra’ in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

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