Promising Young Woman is a movie that doesn’t hold any punches and isn’t difficult to understand. The film is as blunt as a lead pipe and proceeds to beat you with said lead pipe until you give in to the message of the film. I almost want to applaud director Emerald Fennell for delivering a film that’s a rarity today: a direct condemnation of sexual abuse in a culture that’s all too easy to overlook it.
Normally, I would try to be more tact when it comes to opening these reviews and giving some form of background information before delving into the film itself. Like Carey Mulligan’s character Cassie, though, one can only be coy for so long without resorting to just saying what you think and being done with it. Promising Young Woman has a point and forces audiences to confront it head-on, so I’m game. I’ll meet it where it wants me to, but I’m not going to hold back my thoughts.
This isn’t out of a sign to belittle or disrespect the film or anyone who worked on it (quite the contrary), but rather, it deserves the serious analysis and discussion that I’m going to give it. No side-stepping, no diverting.
Let’s talk about how the film tackles sexual assault.
Promising Young Woman
Director: Emerald Fennell
Release Date: December 25, 2020 (Theatrical)
Promising Young Woman is a film that is best approached if you know absolutely nothing about it. The plot itself is a bit hard to gather from the trailer, but essentially Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was a young med school student who was on her way to great things up until she wasn’t. It’s years later and she’s working at a coffee shop, bitter to the world, and can’t get her mind off of someone named Nina. Cassie wants revenge for something that happened, but what exactly happened is left for the audience to figure out and piece together what made Cassie into the vengeful woman she is today.
The message that Promising Young Woman is trying to get across is clear: there are systems in place that protect men from harm while women are left to suffer. Men can get away with being jerks, hurting others, ruining women’s lives, sexual assault, and yes even rape since they have such a bright future ahead of them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a promising young woman. Society is geared to benefit men and to go against the grain makes you into a bitch, a slut, and other words that I’m too polite to go into detail with. Change requires people to go against the grain and if that requires some good old fashioned revenge, so be it.
When Promising Young Woman is focused on this message, it’s electrifying. Nothing that Cassie says is ever really wrong and all of her actions are justified given the characters she interacts with. She meets businessmen who are looking for an easy score, random dudes from dating apps that always claim to be “nice guys,” and old classmates that were young and stupid in their university days. Nearly every male character in the movie, with the exception of possibly one, is irredeemable in the film’s eyes and deserves vengeance for their actions. There’s a reason why Brittany Spears’ “Toxic” has been the go-to theme song of the film.
It would be easy to think of this film as being “anti-man” or “man-hating,” but that would require you to do a tremendous amount of mental gymnastics to overlook the actions of its male characters. None of them are good people and it’s frightening how many of their actions are those we see in everyday life. Numerous times throughout the film, Cassie will call out the behaviors of the men she encounters and this brings to light just how awful they really are. When they are called out for their internal ugliness, they often break down like little babies, pee themselves, or contrive some lame excuse to deflect blame. Regardless of what they do, all are exposed for being pathetic objects that deserve derision.
Promising Young Woman delivers numerous thrilling scenes and moments throughout its nearly two-hour runtime and more often than not had me smiling in glee at how the bad guys get their comeuppance. Granted, not every man in the film is shown off as a bad guy, but subtlety isn’t this film’s strong suit. It makes grand statements and creates larger than life drama, such as when Cassie meets with a university head at the school she dropped out of. Those moments bring the film to life and really demonstrate how in control Mulligan is of the situation and her character’s stone-cold delivery. I could most definitely see a Best Actress nomination in Mulligan’s future: it’s that good.
It’s when the film isn’t interested in glorious revenge that it gets bogged down in the details. Some may be put off at how gung-ho Promising Young Woman is at delivering a scathing indictment of toxic masculinity, but that’s the point. To take away the venom from the film would be to neuter it. This is why the moments where Cassie is just living her everyday life feel so deflating since it does exactly that.
A running subplot throughout the film is watching Cassie develop a relationship with a former classmate named Ryan (Bo Burnham). While those moments are fine, they’re a far cry from what the film does best. It loses a lot of its focus when we pivot from Cassie’s righteous path of justified revenge to a romance film starring two people that don’t really have too much chemistry. This isn’t to undermine the talents of Burnham, the man is one of the funniest comedians alive and an excellent filmmaker, but Mulligan and him just never really click with each other. Their romance, in turn, feels like a formality.
Despite not really falling into this genre per se, it’s best to look at Promising Young Woman as a rape-revenge film perpetually stuck in the third act. Usually, the third act of a rape-revenge film features sweet karmic justice on the perpetrators and knows that’s where the payoff is. It’s a gentle crescendo of violence until the climax where justice has been served and some form of retribution is achieved.
Promising Young Woman feels like a two-hour climax to a movie where we have to piece together the first act and never learn about the second act. It feels incomplete and instead of filling it in with details to help understand the situation that Cassie finds herself in, it then focuses on a B-plot that really takes away from the central hook of the story. Sure, the B-plot does also serve to help further the film’s central theme in a roundabout way, but it’s done in such a manner that makes it come across like an afterthought.
Visually, the film is a treat, delivering some beautiful shots and some clever moments that serve to heighten the tensions in the dialogue. Speaking of, the script truly has a chance to come alive when Cassie is left alone to talk with her targets. There’s rarely any extreme action in the film, but instead, the tension lies in the quality of the exchanges between Cassie and whomever she’s starring opposite of. Mulligan brings words to life, but she really didn’t have to do much to make these words, in particular, bite.
This is a film that BEGS to have a Deep Analysis made about it, which it could potentially receive. I think that as a whole, Promising Young Woman may not be the most effective commentary on sexism and toxic masculinity but it still manages to do a serviceable job. It’s whenever the movie is distracted from its themes that it loses a lot of steam. Eventually, it’s able to land on its own two feet and by the end, I was glad at what I saw, but maybe not quite as impressed as I could have been.