Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★

I’ll be honest, had it not been for the reception this film was getting and its popularity on Letterboxd, I likely would have skipped over it (that is, unless I’d been able to register for the Film Independent screening on time). The idea seemed decent, but a little generic and basic as a revenge story even with the uncomfortable subject matter at the center. But watching it play out, the film surprisingly has a very special and unexpected way of covering it, right down to how it all resolves. It left me with … quite a mix of emotions, actually. But all of them a result of just how good the movie turned out.

The thing that I think is important to focus on is that Cassandra’s ways of sticking it to the terrible men she lures are not as extreme as you may think. At no point do we get any clear indication that, at least during her regular “outings”, she actually physically harms them or even gets them in trouble for their actions. This also applies to many of the people she targets in the primary revenge scheme of the movie. It’s mostly psychological, either giving guilty bystanders a slight taste of the trauma they’ve allowed or messing with their outlook on the issue. But nothing is indicated to be permanent, even her final deed which has the most potential repercussions for people. Even her own self-fulfillment doesn’t seem to be fully accomplished. In that sense, you could argue that what she’s doing will have no real impact whatsoever and is all completely futile, and I would understand that logic.

However, there’s two things I could say to that. One is that the film is really more focused on Cass herself and the anguish and search for the justice she’s looking for, and how she eventually grapples with trying to move on from the past versus not having enough trust in people to embrace a future. The film doesn’t mince words with how much her personal and professional life have taken a toll, and how she’s only been digging herself deeper into that hole with her endeavors. Yet you deeply sympathize with why she does it, especially when she discovers a terrible truth that pushes her over the edge for the third act. The other point is that, as sad as it sounds, the possible futility of what she’s doing does ring true to real life, even within the film itself. It’s a disgusting fact to acknowledge, but so often the “men” who do these terrible things go on with life facing no meaningful consequences, while the victims are forgotten and left to their own trauma. Nothing that Cass does in this movie guarantees any of that will change, even in the seemingly-bittersweet ending that may very well veer towards purely bitter depending on one’s interpretation. It’s not a movie that allows you at any point the pure satisfaction you’d expect in a revenge thriller like this. And I don’t think that’s an accident; I think the film is intending to have that effect, given the many sharply-written talks many characters have with each other about how and why these crimes are allowed to slide.

Not just sharply written, but sharply performed, primarily in the case of Carey Mulligan. Her delivery is absolutely magnetic, creating a character who knows exactly what to say and how to say it to swiftly and precisely shoot down any false statement or claim thrown at her. And there are a lot of them, a repeated one being the infamous “I was young and stupid”. As if you have to be older and more experienced to know not to rape someone or be a willing bystander to it, or as if such evil can be put into the same category as some juvenile prank. Because of this, even when Cass is at her most morally questionable, she makes you want to keep following her and says exactly what you would want to say in her position, all with such charismatic self-assurance.

At first I got the impression that Emerald Fennell’s direction would be on the blander side, a sign of this being her feature debut. But as it went along, the flair of it really picked up, effectively adding to the uneasy and emotionally compromising nature of many scenes. It’s a very pretty movie as well, courtesy of cinematographer Benjamin Kracun. If I had to complain about one thing, it’d be the soundtrack and how often the non-original songs felt forced and distracting. I think removing most of them would have been to this movie’s benefit and allowed the weight of some moments to come more naturally. A few of the male characters can also sometimes come across as cartoonish, seeming more like constructs instead of characters, but given how likely it is that they’re not too far from a lot of horrible real-life people (and how the most important characters feel more authentic), it’s really not a big issue for me.

I think many would be very pleasantly surprised with Promising Young Woman, even if it doesn’t always go as they may expect or even hope. With one of the year’s best lead performances, a subversive look at a disturbing subject, and sharp direction, I can give it an easy recommend to anyone even remotely interested (who hasn’t already seen it by now). While I personally get the sense that Fennell wasn’t wholly assured of her own talent quite yet, it’s still clear as day that she has it, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what else she does now that she’s made her first mark.

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