Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★

"Promising Young Woman" is an attempt to subvert sexism in the movies by turning the tables and allowing the women to do more or less what men have been doing for years. It sets up a new take on old revenge narratives in that it doesn't make any sublimated connection with violence. The movie is shocking, but not gratuitously so. Surprisingly, it ends up becoming a feel-good tale of a woman enduring a series of horrific abuses and triumphantly coming into her own at the end. There's still a certain level of unease in the basic premise of this story, which uses the abuse of a woman as a means of creating some thrills, but at least the thrills aren't cheap.

As the film opens, a group of three guys are out at a bar one night after work. They all note a woman, visibly drunk and sitting alone across the room. The apparent outlier isn't going to have any of this. He goes over to the woman, starts talking to her, makes sure she is fine and has a way home, and offers to set up a ride for her, after she discovers her cellphone is missing. The guy seems nice and considerate, but then, he suggests that the woman, still obviously quite intoxicated, should just come over to his apartment. She doesn't agree, but she doesn't disagree, either. That's all this guy needs to hear. He's in for a shock, though. She isn't drunk.

The promising young woman of the title is Cassie (Carey Mulligan). This is her regular routine: going to a bar, pretending to be drunk, waiting for the inevitable moment that some "nice guy" offers help and then tries to take advantage of her. That's when the Cassie teaches the guy a very sobering lesson. She reads them the riot act about their behavior and its implications before heading home to make another notation in a notebook that seems to be full of them. She routinely arranges a situation similar to the tragic one that ruined her friend's life. It's not exactly about revenge, though. It's about power, trying to reclaim and use it teach them what should be an obvious lesson.

She was a medical student before her friend was assaulted, and now, she works behind the counter at a coffee shop. Her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Collidge) don't understand why their daughter, once at the top of her class, is now back in her childhood bedroom at 30 years old. Her classmates have mostly forgotten her, except for Ryan (Bo Burnham), who reunites with Cassie when he walks into the coffee shop one day. He's sweet enough to begin to pierce through the shell that Cassie has built up around herself, and cause her to believe that he really and truly is a nice guy.

He also inadvertently proves to be the catalyst for her grand plan when he tells her that Alan, the abuser, is getting married soon. This news inspires her to start selecting and going after targets who were directly or indirectly involved in the attack on her friend. Some, like Madison (Alison Brie), didn't believe the friend. One of them, namely the school's dean (Connie Britton), made excuses for and protected the abuser. A lawyer (Alfred Molina) confesses to a career of fighting for clients like the friend's assailant, and tarnishing the names and reputations of victims to make the fight easier. Cassie is a better fighter than all of the others put together. Skill, focus and need have nothing to do with it: She wins because she dupes everybody without getting duped herself.

Now the movie turns into a macabre caper comedy of clockwork virtuosity. If we do not at first understand all of the relationships between the characters, they do not all understand them themselves, and in certain ways never figure them out. Cassie is played by Carey Mulligan with a hard voice and cold eyes, and there's a great quality in the dry comedy she puts across the role. Burnham is charming enough here to make us doubt the deserved skepticism, and he arrives on the screen not as a writer's notion but with a convincing, engaging personality. It's surprising how the love story transcends all of the plot turns to take on an importance of its own.

Cassie is resourceful, too, and not in such a way that her plans seem to come from nowhere. We can follow her thought process as she fights back or devises ambushes against her pursuers. She doesn't become some murderous monster. She's the men's equal, using the fact that they aren't expecting her to go after them as a way to even her odds. In the simpler terms of the film's success as a thriller, this focus on strategy helps immensely. The movie was written and directed by Emerald Fennell, who has a quality that resists the superficial and facile. She isn't weaving these strands simply to divert us with a labyrinth; she is suggesting the hidden ways in which we affect other lives with our choices and behavior even though unaware.

"Promising Young Woman" is a movie that is not only ingenious and entertaining, but liberating, because we can sense the story isn't going to be twisted into conformity with some stupid formula. It bounces from paranoia to greed to lust to abject fear like a pinball in the wrong machine. Much inevitably will be made of the course the story takes in its third act, which could be perceived as either a major betrayal of a character or a subversive shift in perspective that solidifies Fennel's case. We're left to deal with the consequences and implications of the blunt honesty in that move. And blunt honesty is the least that Cassie could give to those nice guys.