Friday, December 11, 2020


 by Rob DiCristino

In which Carey Mulligan gets even.

A young man sits alone. His heart is racing. He’s made a terrible mistake, and he’s not sure what to do next. He was having a good night, he thought, but he lost control. He went a little too far. He didn’t mean anything by it; he just got a little carried away. That’s all it was. He was entitled to a good time, after all, but now things have blown up in his face. Now there will be questions. He’ll have to justify the things he did and explain why he can’t be held responsible for what happened in the heat of a confusing moment. He’ll barter and bargain and obfuscate, insisting that he shouldn’t be robbed of a bright and productive future just because he made the wrong choice this one time. Everyone has made one wrong choice, right? Yes, people get hurt. They even die. And that is tragic. No one is arguing with that. He should absolutely feel guilty for what he’s done and promise to never do it again. It’s a learning moment, really, and he’s confident that he’ll be a better person if we all just forget about this and move on. Can’t we all just move on?

A lot of people will, but not Cassie (Carey Mulligan). Cassie won’t forgive or forget. She’ll always remember what those people did to her friend Nina in that college dorm room. That they watched and laughed. That they filmed it. She’ll always remember that no one believed her friend afterward, that the whole thing was turned into a “He said/she said” affair and swept under the rug. Nina shouldn’t have gotten so drunk, they told her. She should know that these things can happen. Now she’s gone, and Cassie’s a dropout working in Gail’s (Laverne Cox) coffee shop. Well, by day, anyway. By night, she straddles the bar at the hottest nightclubs, feigning intoxication and waiting to pounce on whichever would-be date rapist is bold enough to take the drunk girl home. It’s noble work, but Cassie’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) worry that their daughter is living in the past. When handsome doctor Ryan (Bo Burnham) enters the picture, they hope Cassie will finally move on. Cassie soon discovers, however, that he may be the key to her ultimate revenge.
Killing Eve alum Emerald Fennell makes her feature debut with Promising Young Woman, a darkly comedic thriller that recontextualizes revenge classics like Hard Candy and Ms. 45 for the modern era (era). Carey Mulligan gives one of the year’s best performances as Cassie, a crusader of virtue using incidental acts of social sabotage to numb her deep emotional trauma. Cassie doesn’t understand why the world wants her to forget. She doesn’t want to get better. She doesn’t want to heal. She wants to live in her pain until others can no longer ignore it. Given the frightening regularity of — and lack of institutional recourse for — sexual assault, we can’t help but sympathize with her. Why assimilate into a system that allows these horrors to go unnoticed? Why finish medical school? Why get married and live the good life? Wouldn’t that make her just as guilty as the people who blamed Nina’s fate on normal adolescent shenanigans, the people who chose to protect themselves instead of helping someone in need?
Fennell’s sharp writing and confident compositional style give energy and dynamism to a well-worn narrative model. She keeps us on edge throughout the film, often giving us a taste of familiar genre tropes before taking the kinds of sharp narrative turns that force us to confront our own culpability in Cassie’s predicament. To wit: Burnham is introduced as the sheepish Nice Guy, the innocent future that Cassie could have if she just got over her pain and started living for herself. But is that what he really is? Is that what Cassie really wants, or do we just want that for her because it feels easy? It’s a smart play punctuated by Fennell’s supporting casting: Along with Burnham, cinematic nice guys like Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse and New Girl’s Max Greenfield are cast in darker, more villainous lights, further challenging our preconceived notions of personality and integrity. Fennell's real targets, however, are the women who turn a blind eye to these indiscretions: Alison Brie and Connie Britton incur more of Cassie’s wrath than any of the boys could reasonably handle.
For all its crowd-pleasing sleekness, though, Promising Young Woman sports an ending that will challenge critics and commentators for some time. Whether Cassie’s intricate plot is a magnum opus or a tragic cop-out will be debated by sharper minds than mine, but for now, I’m choosing to revel in Fennell’s corrosive wit and celebrate Promising Young Woman as a necessarily provocative story told by a new and interesting voice. It’s an honest voice, too, one willing to present her lead character as complicated and often unsympathetic — to insist on it, in fact. We have to disagree about Cassie’s methods; we also have to admit that our instinct toward self-preservation often blinds us to the plight of those affected by the choices we make. We should be forced to squirm in our seats and be made uncomfortable when Fennell’s most despicable characters delude themselves with excuses and justifications. We have to react in horror to the film’s final movement, when the training wheels come off and we’re left alone with these creeps. If Cassie has to deal with it, so should we.

Promising Young Woman hits theaters on December 25th.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like all very good questions this film is raising. And love your opening paragraph, Rob.