Promising Young Woman opens with sweaty, grinding bodies.
Set to dim multi-colored lighting and Charli XCX’s “Boys,” the camera cuts across a group of after-work barflies dancing on stage. They shake, slap butts, gyrate, and drink, blissfully unaware of how absolutely ridiculous they look. It’s a delicious send-up of countless scenes featuring scantily-clad women partying together for men’s leery benefit. It sets the expectation that the film will laugh at the male species’ expense and their absurd social and relationship rituals.
Those expectations are smashed before the title card.
Instead, Promising Young Woman hones in on Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan) mission to expose sexual predators by pretending to be incapacitated. Once an aspiring doctor, Cassie dropped out of medical school after her best friend Nina was raped by a popular student, and she committed suicide from the trauma. Cassie’s present life is in aimless stasis: she works at a coffee shop with little human interaction outside of her parents, boss, and the men she pursues at night. Her focus is sharpened when she encounters former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) at the coffee shop, and he tries to pursue her. While Cassie slowly opens up and falls in love, Ryan’s re-entrance in her life ignites her revenge campaign against the ones who failed Nina, from the classmate who didn’t believe her to her rapist.
Promising Young Woman is a powerful exercise in subversion: Cassie’s quest for vengeance, understanding the insidiousness of rape culture, and even the type of film it is. Screenwriter and first-time director Emerald Fennell relishes the opportunity to keep the audience on its toes. With its bone-dry humor and discomfiting wit, her script is chock-full of hairpin turns that frequently upend plot wisdom, making for several surprising moments. The endgame does crystallize at a certain point, but the journey is still utterly engaging and makes for a satisfying and earned resolution. Fennell’s confident direction only enhances her twisty story, blending slasher flick conventions, B-movie cues, and a rich technicolor style that pops off the screen.
Cassie’s story and its reflection of society’s continued reckoning with sexual violence and gender bias are at the core of Promising Young Woman. The film doesn’t pull a single punch about rape as an act of brutality and an institution. The scope is crucially broad: the campus rape epidemic, the penchant to not believe victims, the systems in place that silence and scare them, and the importance of bystanders in perpetuating the sickening culture. All are effective points that ring painfully true in the #MeToo era, but the script serves some better than others. For instance, Cassie’s confrontation with the rapist’s lawyer (Alfred Molina) is deeply unsettling, but hers with the college dean (Connie Britton) leans too close to the absurd to land fully.
The film’s strongest takeaway, the one it has the most fun exploring, is the myth of the “nice guy.” The theory that these men, when given the opportunity, aren’t immune from taking advantage of vulnerable women molds Cassie’s nightly ritual. Given the pages of tic marks in her notebook (a sexual “Death Note,” if you will), the theory nets out. No matter what set-up Cassie concocts, the result is largely the same, almost laughably so.
The film sits cross-legged in amusement as she shreds each guy’s veneer of goodness and leaves them scrambling to explain, justify, or run from their hideous actions. Tongue firmly pressed to cheek, Fennell casts an array of well-known nice guy actors, from The O.C.’s Adam Brody to Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse, smartly flipping their on-screen personas to reveal the potential for poison. The film has its fun, but it doesn’t neglect the pain and disappointment either, especially when the one funny and charming exception ultimately proves the rule.
For all of Promising Young Woman’s intriguing casting choices, Carey Mulligan is the most critical to the film’s success. Shaped by her friend’s sexual trauma, Cassie contains multitudes well beyond the diamond-hard exterior that she presents to the world. How Mulligan conveys them is sharp, as if she’s playing a character with several distinct personalities. She can swap out near-incapacitation for clear-eyed and calm fury with unsettling ease. When Cassie isn’t exposing would-be sexual criminals, Mulligan plays her with a caustic bite that would be off-putting were it not for the glimmers of charm and inner turmoil she lets slips through her eyes (only she could justify spitting in one’s coffee without real provocation). The shell eventually does recede, and the raw pain that she conveys, as Cassie confronts the full scope of Nina’s assault, is absolutely stunning. It’s a tour de force performance, hands down.
We are nowhere near successfully addressing the ubiquitous presence of rape culture. At the very least, we are moving towards greater honesty and transparency about its complexity. Promising Young Woman‘s acid-tipped approach feels especially vital to the ongoing conversation. It demonstrates how the specter of sexual trauma looms large with long-lasting consequences for the victims and their loved ones. And for those who perpetrate and enable it, the film promises that, despite their best efforts, they won’t escape unscathed, even if reality might take longer to catch up.