To say that I have been anticipating the release of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman feels like an understatement. I first saw the trailer sometime in late 2019, and it is ranked only slightly behind Candyman as my most anticipated film of 2020.
But we all know what happened. I don’t need to give you a rundown of the craptastic adventures of 2020 that brought about a global pandemic with the side effect of delaying many anticipated movies. The world wondered if we would ever know the sweet, sweet embrace of a cineplex ever again. And as the pandemic dragged on and movie releases pushed further and further back, we wondered if we would ever have the opportunity to watch some of our anticipated films.
Seeing that Promising Young Woman would be releasing on VOD was a gift of 2020. Trailers showing snappy dialogue and male tears promised a film rife with female revenge.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) once attended a prestigious medical school but dropped out after her best friend, Nina, was raped at a party by a fellow student. She has filled her time since leaving with a unique hobby. Every week she heads out to a bar, pretends to be drunk, and waits to see what sort of “nice guy” decides to help her by taking her home and trying to assault her.
Promising Young Woman delivers on many of the things promised in the trailer. There is snappy dialogue abound and a dark satisfaction as certain characters get their comeuppance; I was, however, unprepared for the emotional gut-punch that came with this film.
While watching, I had a moment where I wondered how some of the scenes would play with men. As a woman viewing this, it was a cornucopia of experiences I recognized. Would they feel bad? Laugh? Feel self-assured because they know that they are good guys, unlike the assholes in the film who had it coming?
Of course, most of the men in this film think of themselves as “nice guys.” They believe they are the good ones. The ones who maybe did something unfortunate in their youth. But who doesn’t make a mistake when they’re kids? You can’t ruin someone’s life over a moment. Should someone be punished for one mistake?
But the trickle-down of those moments, those mistakes, are what’s left. Because Nina’s life ended, and by extension, so did Cassie’s. And this is what I found to be the main flaw of the film.
Any fan of the genre knows the trope of the man who seeks revenge on behalf of his assaulted girlfriend/wife/daughter. Cassie being a woman is at least a step up from that trope. I know few women who could not relate to some portion of this story, being hit on by a creep, made to feel unsafe, called a bitch, or assaulted. But at times, it was almost hard to remember that what happened, happened to another character entirely. One that we never get to meet or even see outside of a few childhood pictures.
Despite my issue with this, Promising Young Woman is powerful and essential. It should provoke conversation. We twist ourselves in knots to justify the actions of the people we love or admire. One needs to only look at some of the celebrities who still work to know the level of excuses we are willing to make.
Fenell assembled a brilliant group of actors to elevate the story. She deliberately cast men who typically portray your traditional “nice guy” role. It was a brilliant move. Chris Lowell’s portrayal of Al Monroe, the classmate who assaulted Nina, was particularly inspired.
Where the cast as a whole does a fantastic job, Carey Mulligan shines. This movie is hers from start to finish. Her Cassie is jaded, angry at the world, and damaged. However, there are glimpses of the person she may have been before Nina’s assault, and before she took on her quest for vengeance. If she’s not up for all of the awards for this, it’s a crime.
I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will say it will undoubtedly be very polarizing for those who view it. I’m still struggling with my feelings on it.
Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Cassie does find her revenge, but it doesn’t come without a cost. Promising Young Woman is a beautifully crafted and smart film but don’t expect to feel any better about yourself after watching it.