Review – Promising Young Woman (2020)

Director: Emerald Fennell

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Alison Brie

As recent revelations of Joss Whedon’s abusive behaviour on the set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer remind us, the film and television industries have been at the centre of the #MeToo movement since it began. It therefore makes sense that the screen should become a place where these issues start to be tackled. Emerald Fennel’s dark satire Promising Young Woman subversively blends the revenge thriller with the romantic comedy to provide a searing critique of rape culture and a system that insists on giving the benefit of the doubt to boys who ‘will be boys.’ In the process, it might just have provided us with the first truly great #MeToo film.

As she approaches her 30th birthday, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) appears to be treading water. Having long since dropped out of medical school, she is working in a dead end coffee shop job, has no significant friendships or relationships to speak of, and still lives with her parents. However, this stagnation is not the result of a lack of purpose. On the contrary, it stems from incredible commitment to a cause. Every week she goes out to a club and pretends to be blackout drunk. Every week, without fail, a ‘nice guy’ comes to check that she is alright, before opportunistically inviting her back to his place where she turns the tables on him, revealing herself to be stone cold sober and teaches him a lesson about consent. With a notebook full of tallies, this unusual brand of vigilante justice has taken over her life. When Cassie starts to hear mention of a name from her past, her targets become for focussed and her mission more personal.

Utterly compelling, Promising Young Woman keeps you on your toes by constantly shifting and requiring you to adjust your relationship with it. Initially, there is a certain spectacle in watching Cassie do what she does. She feels like a classic, dangerous anti-hero. In those moments when she reveals to the predators that they are in fact the prey, there is a coldness in her demeanour, akin to Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, and we get a thrill from watching the blood drain from the faces of these deplorable men. But as we go on, questions start to arise. What is in her past? What has brought her to this? As we get to know Cassie and see the toll that this crusade is taking on her life, we want her to break free of it. We want her to be able to let it go and reclaim her life. A ray of hope enters her world in the form of Ryan (Beau Burnham), a paediatric surgeon who comes into her coffee shop and takes a shining to her. Burnham is so lovely and genuine that his arrival shifts the tone again, taking us through the beats of a romantic comedy, but we know we can’t stay there.

Carey Mulligan as Cassie

There was some controversy surrounding a review of Promising Young Woman that appeared in Variety in which the critic seemed to suggest that Carey Mulligan was not hot enough to convincingly portray this honey trap character. Regardless of where Mulligan may fall on one’s personal hierarchy of Hollywood bombshells, the observation completely misses the point. To imply that being the target of predatory men is a problem reserved for the unattainably glamorous ignores what we see in the film, that these predators’ targets are selected first and foremost on the basis of vulnerability. That controversy should not detract from the brilliance of Mulligan’s performance. Cassie allows Mulligan to show the breadth of her range as an actress, being at different times cold, sympathetic, hopeful, terrifying, snarky and distraught. For the film to work this character had to work and thanks to Mulligan it does.

From its opening shots, capturing slow motion closeups of chino wearing male crotches thrusting on the dance floor to Charli XCX’s ‘Boys’ before pulling out to an unflattering wide shot revealing the awkward staggering drunks these crotches belong to, Fennell seeks not only to subvert the usual objectification of the female body in such scenes but to change the way that we look at men. It is significant that Cassie’s targets are not the sleaze bags that you can see coming from a mile away, but rather those who think of themselves as nice guys but will still take advantage of a woman when an opportunity presents itself. Even Ryan has a moment. Walking Cassie home from their first date, he observes that ‘coincidentally’ they happen to be walking past his apartment and asks if she’d like to come up. It is a moment that we’ve seen played as cute in dozens of romantic comedies, but knowing Cassie and what she’s been through, even though it proves only a bump in the road, in that moment it is devastating. This focus on the ‘nice guy’ makes for a more confronting film, particularly for male viewers who can’t so easily distance themselves from what they are seeing as they can from the out and out jerk.

While Promising Young Woman is Fennel’s feature debut as a writer-director, having served as the show runner for the second season of Killing Eve she is hardly a novice. It is, none the less, a bold coming out. Fennel matches the daring and confrontational nature of its themes with an aesthetic that does not pull its punches. The film has a striking colour palette and a really effective soundtrack filled with great needle drops. While as a male, I can never fully understand the psychological experience Fennel is communicating, Promising Young Woman is a powerful expression of rage at the injustice women face in this world where predators get the opportunity to move on, and sometimes even grow and become better people, while victims so often remain trapped.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen Promising Young Woman? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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