Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★★

When I was in college during the early 1990s, the campus newspaper reported an incident involving a student who was raped after she had ventured alone to a nearby nightspot. I clearly remember, in the days that followed, overhearing a group of female classmates talk about how "stupid and careless" the woman in question had been by going to a bar alone and getting drunk. I also remember several guys casually mentioning that the woman had been "asking for it" by indulging in alcohol by herself at that location. The animosity directed toward the unfortunate woman from fellow students of both genders did not sit well with me, even at my younger age. Since my alma mater is located in the middle of a city, student groups and campus police officials repeatedly emphasized the importance of "not making yourself a victim." In retrospect, I believe that society should have placed equal emphasis on teaching males not to make themselves predators.

The above distant memory surfaces in my mind several times while watching the 2020 dramatic thriller, Promising Young Woman. This film, the feature-length directorial debut of Emerald Fennell, was marketed as a dark comedy, but, while it does incorporate jokes to a natural situational extent, I suspect that many viewers, like me, will not find anything particularly funny about its cinematic depiction of the deteriorating effect of past trauma on one's soul or about its exploration of cultural attitudes that are long overdue for a change. I consider this to be a great movie, perhaps even a tremendous movie, because of how it incorporates influences from rape revenge cinema of the 1970s and 1980s in a creative way, how it uses colorful candy-coated cinematography and sugary dance pop songs to achieve brilliant misdirection at every turn, and how it demonstrates emotional resonance by way of actors performing against typecasting expectations, but those seeking amusement after seeing its quirky trailers may find that their mileage varies.

Carey Mulligan, who impressed me greatly in Never Let Me Go (2010) and Shame (2011), is a revelation here as Cassandra, a once "promising young woman" who, after dropping out of medical school because of a devastating tragedy, lives with her parents, works at a coffee shop, and spends her weekends prowling nightclubs, disguised as a helplessly inebriated female, in order to turn the tables on men who try to take advantage of her apparent condition. This character's quest to exact calculated vengeance on the man responsible for her mental wounds and on the legal system that failed her stretches credibility at first glance, but Mulligan's performance lends an uncanny verisimilitude to the portrayal of a person who carries a terrible weight on her shoulders, but hides her emotions from the world. In equal measures, she exudes exhaustion, weakness, joyful elation, fear, assertiveness, and menace.

Mulligan's Cassandra is relatable not just to victims of sexual assault, but likely to all who were bullied at some point during the past. I have a handful of unpleasant memories of being picked on during my youth that reverberate in my psyche because of the sense of humiliation, but the perpetrators of these instances probably have no specific recollection of what they did, because they casually treated people like that every day. One scene, where Cassandra lurks on social media to see that the man and his friends who wreaked havoc on her existence are happily going about their lives with marriages, children and success, packs an understated gut punch.

Fennell helms this visually spectacular endeavor with nods to classic film noir and horror, overtly referencing The Night of the Hunter (1955) and the screen adaptations of Stephen King's IT. Like the 1990 television miniseries take on IT, this film effectively utilizes comedian actors in serious parts. Molly Shannon and Alfred Molina, in particular, deliver maximum impact during brief sequences. Bo Burnham, as Ryan, a past acquaintance to our lead who reintroduces himself into her life, is amazingly multilayered for reasons that become apparent during the story.

I feel self-conscious admitting that I thoroughly enjoy Promising Young Woman, because I am not so sure that it is a film that should be "enjoyed." There is, however, an undeniable exhilaration to watching Mulligan's Cassandra get the best of foes and to watching the expressions of epiphany from the characters who realize that a reckoning is finally upon them. I also get a kick out of watching Mulligan's brand of deadpan humor, especially because she has always been so serious in past films.

Because of my familiarity with gritty exploitation movies like I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Ms .45 (1981), Revenge (2017), and The Nightingale (2018), I initially expected the tale of Cassandra to play out in a certain way. This narrative has more in mind, however, than mere "an eye for an eye" visceral catharsis. Promising Young Woman throws divisive curveballs our way, especially during one particular late moment when we are shocked to see that things are not happening in a way that we would wish for them to happen, but unflinching honesty with regard to the subject matter guides the proceedings every step of the way. For those who are casualties of rape culture, no amount of retribution can truly set things right.

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