Emerald Fennell‘s Promising Young Woman is an incendiary work of filmmaking that’s bound to get people talking, not because it’s looking for attention, but because it’s angry and sad in all the best ways. The film makes big swing after big swing not to be showy, but because it’s pissed off about a conversation that’s long overdue and a culture that shields criminals and discards victims. Fennell has crafted a movie about rape where no one actually says the word “rape” because it hangs in the air in every scene, in every interaction, in every excuse. I was absolutely floored by Promising Young Woman, not just because Fennell proves she’s already a master of her craft with her first feature film, but because it’s unapologetic in pointing out complicity. With an unforgettable lead performance from Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman is like a Valkyrie cry that will leave your ears ringing.
Cassie (Mulligan) was a brilliant med school student before she dropped out under mysterious circumstances seven years ago. These days, she works at a coffee shop with her friend Gale (Laverne Cox) and at night she pretends to get drunk, some guy inevitably preys on her, and then when they get back to his place, she reveals she is stone cold sober and there will be a reckoning. When she meets up with her old classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), she sees the possibility of perhaps leaving behind her mission of vengeance, but is torn between a life of peace and her need to avenge an old friend.
There’s a lot more going on than that, but to go on would spoil some of the film’s best reveals. What you need to know about Promising Young Woman is that it takes on rape culture in a way we’ve never really seen before in a mainstream movie. Fennell has crafted a very angry movie in a world that’s not only deeply uncomfortable with women’s anger, but goes to great lengths to accommodate the lives and feelings of men. Fennell, obviously, is in the right, but she is far past the notion that rapists are just men who hide in bushes and attack women late at night. For Promising Young Woman, the man who needs to be confronted is the self-proclaimed nice guy.
Too often, the narrative goes: why should we believe women? And so comes a litany of tired lines: “She was asking for it.” “She just wants attention.” “She shouldn’t have had so much to drink.” “Boys will be boys.” Fennell, in her endlessly clever script, turns credibility on its head. If the culture is so dead set against not believing women, why should we believe men, especially when they’re so certain that they’re the nice guy? Fennell stocks her film with perfectly pathetic guys (Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and others acquit themselves well at playing sniveling losers) because she’s tired of excuses. Enter her avenging angel, Cassie.
What’s so damn great about Cassie as a character is that at the outset of the movie, you think it’s just going to be Carey Mulligan wrecking shit, and honestly, that would not be the worst film ever—just two hours of Carey Mulligan ruining predatory men. But Fennell has far more ambition than that and while Promising Young Woman may be heightened in its direction, it’s never fantastical. Fennell wants you to be shocked out of complacency, but never questioning the reality presented. This is not he said/she said. Cassie demands to be heard through her aggressive actions, but Mulligan always lets us see the toll. This isn’t a superhero story. Cassie is a real person consumed by vengeance, and while we can revel in her victories, Mulligan never lets us forget that this is not Batman. This is tragedy tempered only by the darkest of comedy.
Watching Promising Young Woman is like watching someone try to juggle brightly colored glass balls in the air. Some of them shatter on the ground, but you can’t help but be awed by the spectacle and the audacity. The color palette and lighting alone is absolutely brilliant and informs Cassie’s world perfectly in terms of the worlds she tries to move between and yet can’t escape the darkness surrounding her. Promising Young Woman recognizes the world is broken and the time for kind words and second chances has passed.
There’s so much more to say about Promising Young Woman, and I’m excited about the conversations it could spark when it opens later this year. I don’t think Fennell is trying to silence men or that her film is misandrist, although I imagine it will be interpreted as such by those who recoil at the notion that rape culture even exists. Promising Young Woman is clearly tired of men and their excuses and why pity is only reserved for them. The movie is tired of men who get to do whatever the hell they want in college, expect everyone to love them no matter what, and demand that any woman they wronged to be forgotten, dismissed and ignored because those women are in the way of a Supreme Court judgeship or what have you. Promising Young Woman has very clear targets in mind, and Fennell obliterates them in a blaze of righteous fury.
Promising Young Woman opens April 17th.
For more of our Sundance 2020 reviews, click the links below: