Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★½

“Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”

There is a scene, about midway through ‘Promising Young Woman,’ Emerald Fennell’s eye-shattering zeitgeist-inspired response to the #MeToo movement, in which a man pulls his truck next to our heroine, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), and throws a few choice words her way, including the one you really shouldn’t lob at a young woman at the end of her rope. (You know the one). Scored to Wagner’s darkly epic piece “Liebestod,” Cassie gets out of her car, grabs a tire iron, and proceeds to smash the shit out of the creep’s pickup: tail lights, hood, windshield, the works. He screeches away, leaving her standing in the street, surrounded by the wreckage she’s made.

Strictly speaking, the scene doesn’t move the plot of the raucous, fresh riot anywhere in particular - it’s not even that connected to what comes immediately before or after. But it serves as a kind of mission statement for the movie: a sustained howl of rage, bitter but not entirely hopeless, angry but certainly not humorless, ‘Promising Young Woman’ puts its only remaining shreds of faith in a woman willing to do, if not exactly the right thing, then whatever comes closest to it in a pretty, ugly world. And it’s hard to blame her.

The clever premise, which has been widely spilled and disseminated by one of the best trailers in recent memory, is that Cassie goes out to bars, fakes like she’s knock-down drunk, waits for a “nice guy” to take her home and take advantage of her, and then…well. Fennell leaves precisely what happens next to our imagination, at least for a time, but suffice it to say that this proves a fine and therapeutic way for Cassie to work through some shit. There is, of course, a reason that trailer has struck such a chord: the specificity with which it works, pinpointing the self-proclaimed nice guys who’ve become a bane in this complicated climate, sexual politics-wise. But Cassie’s mission is profoundly personal, the result of a trauma suffered by her best friend seven years earlier.

At the center of Fennell’s wicked creation is Mulligan, the preternatural talent and most commanding onscreen performer of her generation. With ‘Promising Young Woman,’ Mulligan has created an anti-heroine for the ages who we can’t take our eyes off as she methodically navigates Carrie’s engaging arc that builds to a furious crescendo that explodes across the vibrantly-stylized frame. As the innocent, sloppy drunk, she’s terribly sympathetic, but when the fake inhibition fades, Mulligan is a menacing force of nature. Taking on a near vigilante or sociopath’s mantle, her composure to mete out justice is downright frightening and wholly convincing when combined with the overwhelming grief carried by the character. Equally so, Mulligan can disarm as quickly as she can destroy when such spirit is coaxed, often in her scenes shared with the magnetic Bo Burnham. There’s a certain twinkle in the wrinkle of her smile and a sparkle in her eye that is undeniably captivating. And despite the exploitation elements, the actor isn’t tossing broad winks: Mulligan plays the pain, heartache, and blistering anger of the character straight. (She can really put a cold chill on a line like “I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve thought about it.”) Mulligan is simply a fucking revelation in a sublime performance we’ll be talking about for years.

As for Fennell, revenge is a dish best drenched in a provocative candy-colored palette of bubblegum purples, neon pinks, and an endless array of pastels. There’s no denying that she’s playing with dynamite and knows it; the brashness of her approach and style leaving an indelible mark as a visual filmmaker, especially given that the electric flourishes work in total juxtaposition to the darker elements of her acid humor narrative. Every shot is constructed with thought and flair, as Fennell marries the two sensibilities with effortless ease - right when we’re comfortable, Fennell grounds her narrative with a settled realism, with the two contrasting styles playing seamlessly into her thematic conceits. She’s also supercharged ‘Promising Young Woman’ with inspired pop confectionary that mixes irony in with its earnestness. From Charli XCX’s “Boys” playing over stylized shots of male torsos dancing in a club to a pharmacy sing-a-long to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” that finally gives due credit to an underrated pop classic (yes, you heard me correctly), it’s a cavalcade of perfectly-placed needle drops that reaches pure perfection with the use of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” during the unforgettable final moments.

Lacking the frequent missteps of first-time filmmakers, Fennell has crafted an absolute firecracker designed to provoke conversation: a scathing indictment of toxic masculinity and the perpetual cycle of violence against women that rarely sees any punishment, ‘Promising Young Woman’ meets this moment in history with pervasive anger that’s genuinely palpable. And when Anthony Willis‘s eerie orchestral interpolation of Britney Spears‘ “Toxic” kicks in and Cassie suits up in her nurse’s uniform, we’re all in; we’re there, we’re ready for this thing to deliver. Fennell serves up a veritable feast of delights in both her acerbic writing and stylish direction, and with her determination to bring an issue into the light many would prefer to remain in the shadows, she’s delivered one of 2020’s most relevant pieces of cinema: a stunning debut that boldly declares she’s a filmmaker to keep an eye on. 

With an often bright, candy-coated aesthetic that masks a darker, more poisonous taste inside, and anchored by a dynamite central turn, ‘Promising Young Woman’ is a fierce, fiery battle cry of a film, one that seeks to hold accountable everyone whose actions (or inaction) contributed to the destruction of a woman’s life. It’s urgent, it’s necessary, and it’s incredible. More of that in our cinemas, please, and thanks.

Added to Best of 2020