In a crowded nightclub that caters to young professionals, a group of guys are complaining about a female coworker when they spot a provocatively dressed, totally plastered woman sitting alone. They casually toss a few self-serving judgments back and forth, like “That is just asking for it,” and, “You’d think you’d learn by that age, right?” It takes only a few seconds for one of them to approach her under the pretense of gallantry, to “see if she’s okay.” From his perspective, she’s an easy score. She’s not. She’s a Venus flytrap, and he’s the fly.
I’ve just described the opening scene of the evocative new thriller, Promising Young Woman. Broadcasting the drunken siren call is Cassie, played to the hilt by Carey Mulligan. Cassie used to be a promising young medical student until tragedy changed her trajectory. Now she’s a barista, and by night she targets would-be sexual predators. Her prey, should they take advantage of a drunken woman who dresses invitingly and hangs out in bars by herself, are either consciously or unconsciously exploiting a system they know will give them the benefit of the doubt. Cassie tackles each encounter with self-righteous zeal and the kind of confidence that comes from knowing she’s the smartest person in the room. Only once does someone manage to flap her unflappable demeanor, someone so disturbed by his own complicity within the patriarchal legal system that he can’t sleep at night and welcomes retribution to absolve his guilt. When she gets over the shock of his unexpected contriteness, she forgives him in a cathartic moment of empathy.
Promising Young Woman is an astonishingly self-assured piece of filmmaking by first time director Emerald Fennell. Her bold soundtrack choices, camerawork, and use of color – especially the most gender signifying colors imaginable, pink and blue – reflect a virtuosity rarely seen in a freshmen project. More than once her film references the Robert Mitchum classic, The Night of the Hunter – a title I’ll bet Fennel wished hadn’t already been taken.
Up until fairly recently, Fennell worked mostly in front of the camera, as in her supporting role for the wildly popular Netflix series, The Crown. Between acting gigs she’s sharpened her storytelling skills writing for, and occasionally producing, television shows such as Killing Eve. Thanks to a script she penned herself, Promising Young Woman is a showcase for Carrie Mulligan’s formidable acting chops. Bo Burnham, the comedian turned actor turned filmmaker, also deserves a shout out. Burnham provides romantic comedy relief as Cassie’s gangly love interest, Ryan, as well as a possible path forward for Cassie to find peace within herself.
Every so often a film comes along with a completely different take on a familiar genre. In this case, it’s the revenge film. Promising Young Woman isn’t merely a get-even fantasy writ large like the ultraviolent Death Wish or John Wick movies. For one thing, it’s completely bloodless. And there’s a veritable prairie dog town of morally complex questions just waiting to pop their heads out of the ground after the applause-inducing ending. Dare I say it’s because a woman wrote and directed it? I only wish I could have enjoyed it with an audience; Promising Young Woman is one of those rare films that makes a person pine nostalgically for the pre-pandemic theatrical experience.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.