The revenge film is one of the oldest hats in the box when it comes to cinematic tropes. Having a wronged protagonist immediately sets the audience rooting for them and allows us to revel in the comeuppance they inevitably hand out to their wrongdoers. It’s a simple enough trick. Promising Young Woman shows us that this old hat is still worth putting on in a daring directorial debut from Emerald Fennell.
Fennell, best known as the showrunner for the second season of Killing Eve, puts her considerable talents to good use in Promising Young Woman, a revenge thriller that constantly keeps the audience guessing. The film stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a former med school student who has dropped out and spent the intervening years working a dead-end job at a cafe. Alienated from her friends and family, she leads a secret double life where she punishes men who prey on drunk women at bars and parties.
Sexual predators are among the lowest scum of the Earth, so it’s easy to fall in love with Cassie and her quest for justice in a system that so often denies it to the victim, focusing on the wellbeing and reputation of the perpetrator instead. Fennell’s script doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Cassie holds lawyers, educators, friends, and onlookers to the same level of accountability as those who actually perpetrated the crime.
The script is also gloriously funny, especially considering the dark subject matter at the heart of the film. Promising Young Woman is an absolute rollercoaster in terms of its tone, but the wit and humor of the writing make this feature a strength rather than a weakness.
It’s refreshing to see a movie like Promising Young Woman so adeptly and cleverly address the double standards of our culture and how women are treated in our society. Carey Mulligan is clearly having a blast as Cassie, smirking, skulking, and sneering as she lays one sinister honey trap after another. That she’ll be nominated for a bunch of the best actress prizes this award season is a foregone conclusion here.
Viewers with a long memory will remember her fantastic star-making turn in An Education, which saw her as a naive schoolgirl targeted by an older man. Her role here is very much the antithesis of that one. Cassie has already had her eponymous “education” in this story, and seeing Mulligan on the other end of the spectrum, as the lurking hunter, is a welcome surprise.
Filling out the cast is an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent. Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Clancy Brown, Laverne Cox and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are all fantastic here. Alfred Molina shines brightest among these small roles, imparting a man who has done wrong with a real sense of gravitas and despair among the excuses and justifications of the rest of the characters in Promising Young Woman.
Bo Burnham also does a lot of heavy lifting as Cassie’s romantic interest and a man who might serve as a beacon, someone who can remind Cassie that not all men (maybe) are as bad as she thinks. Burnham and Mulligan have fantastic chemistry and, though their relationship is tinged with waves of darkness, that chemistry is still one of the best parts of the film.
Promising Young Woman also benefits greatly from Fennell’s unique eye for shot composition, aided no doubt by cinematographer Benjamin Kračun. Nearly every shot has the look of a painting or photograph that could be found hanging on the wall of a trendy cafe precisely like the one that Cassie works at.
The absence of the male gaze is also a feather in the cap of Promising Young Woman. Though Cassie spends much of the film dressed provocatively, the film rarely lingers on her figure. Most notably, the actual assault that powers the majority of the storytelling here is never seen, allowing it to remain mysterious in its tragedy rather than lurid and tasteless.
As a directorial debut, Promising Young Woman is a tour-de-force, one that will no doubt pave the way for Fennell to do a myriad of other impressive works in the future, especially when you consider that she’s also the writer of the film. Though she’s had plenty of other work prior to this, Promising Young Woman will likely put her on the map the way Get Out or Juno propelled their respective talent into the stratosphere overnight.
A truly impressive genre-bender, Promising Young Woman is unquestionably one of the best movies of 2020, and a bold new take on the revenge thriller.
Promising Young Woman is available on VOD, January 15.