Promising Young Woman (2020)
Revenge never looked so promising.
Promising Young Woman is a bleakly funny and razor witted film that pulls no punches in its takedown of modern rape culture. Writer/director Emerald Fennell (best known as both an actor and showrunner for season two of the highly lauded television series Killing Eve) makes an astute first foray into cinema with a film that is never shy of its difficult subject matter and further finds a sly relish in exposing the grotesque aspects of institutionalized patriarchy and how it enables victim-blaming and tragically far more fatal consequences for many of the women effected by it.
Cassie Taylor (Carey Mulligan) is a young woman on a mission to expose predatory men. She frequents bars where she fakes near blackout drunkenness and awaits a “nice guy” to feign concern for her and help her out. In the opening scene, she is approached by just such a guy, Jerry (Adam Brody), who at first genuinely seems to want to help her escape the bar and get home safely. It soon transpires, though, that getting her home safely means getting her to his apartment, where he soon starts to attempt a clumsy seduction. While whispering to her that she is safe whilst undressing her for sex despite her near-comatose state, Jerry is shocked when Cassie comes back to life as sober and very pissed off. Although the audience doesn’t know what happens in the apartment, the next scene playfully suggests that it was more than a little unpleasant for Jerry. Walking home, still dressed in the clothing of the night before with a burger dripping ketchup down her stockings and top, Cassie is catcalled by a group of construction workers. She stands and stares them down until their calls telling her how sexy she is turn into blank insults. Fennell shoots straight from the hip and doesn’t miss a beat in telling the audience that systemic misogyny is the enemy.
At home, Cassie grabs a diary and adds to a long list of her “victims” — what shape her revenge takes indeed varies, but at this stage, it hasn’t reached the level of violence. For the past four years, Cassie has been on a quest to fight the systems that make it socially acceptable for men to treat women as their sexual property. She left her prestigious private medical school under dark circumstances. Her childhood friend and fellow student and promising young woman, Nina, was raped at a party whilst passed out drunk. Even though complaints were made to the college, the burden of proof fell on the traumatized Nina, and eventually, the shame and blame became too much for the young woman to bear. Drawing directly from real-life cases — please watch the devastating and brilliant documentary Audrie & Daisy (2016) to see just how the system is rigged against young women in such situations — Fennell doesn’t reduce the issue to one that’s perpetrated solely by men. Women in situations of power also benefit from dismissing women’s experiences. In this case, Fennell depicts the Dean of Medicine from Forrest University (Connie Britton) who mishandled the case and buried it as well as the popular Madison (Alison Brie) whose privilege means that she was able to ignore Nina’s cries for help. It’s not until Cassie places both women in situations where they or someone they love are ostensibly at risk that they wake up to their parts in perpetrating rape culture.
Dropping out of med school has left Cassie working at a coffee shop where she meets up again with fellow ex Forrest University medical student Ryan (an almost too perfectly cast Bo Burnham). Ryan is now a pediatric surgeon whose general demeanor of truly being a nice guy throws Cassie into a spin. He’s charming, funny, self-effacing, and most importantly, appears to genuinely not be “one of those guys.” Cassie’s initial reservations are worn down by his humor, and for a while, it seems that she has found a way back to some kind of happiness not tinged by her agenda of revenge. Supported by her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and her coffee shop boss, Gail (Laverne Cox), Cassie, lets her guard down and begins to fall for Ryan.
Unfortunately, Ryan brings with him the echoes of the past that Cassie can never escape. He’s still friends with the group of students complicit in Nina’s rape. A romantic happy ending seems tantalizingly real, but can Cassie give up her quest for revenge, especially now she’s aware that Nina’s rapist Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) is back from overseas and about to settle down into a comfortable career and marriage?
The question is most certainly one you don’t want a review to answer. The incredible and indelible third act of the film is to be savored. Carey Mulligan, An Education (2009), once again shows that she can take on difficult subject matter and is almost impossible to look away from. She is sweet-faced, her hair beribboned and girly, but underneath there is an anti-hero made of ice. Fennell also knows how to get the best performances out of her cast. Pulling from a pop-culture pool that includes Adam Brody and Chris Lowell distinctly against type is just one of the clever flourishes the film provides. Those two actors especially live in most people’s memories as prime time television soap good guys, but Fennell is all about subversion. Whether it be romantic comedy tropes or even flirting with the slasher genre, she’s always giving the audience a knowing wink.
Promising Young Woman is an absolutely assured cinematic debut that will hopefully find its feet amongst mainstream audiences. Fennell is pushing a conversation we all have to have about the power of the patriarchy but also what drives obsession. It’s an insightful piece of black comedy that knows how to deliver a searing takedown of contemporary gender politics and the systems that engender the disempowerment of women when they are at their most vulnerable.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney