The start of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is one that already feels very indicative of an entire culture that’s been enabling men to be at their absolute worst, especially regarding their treatment of women – even after the prominence of the Me Too movement in recent years. But the moment you see Carey Mulligan finally arise to put the supposed “nice guy” back in his place, Fennell’s film starts to show its true colours – and that’s all among the most admirable aspects that shines thoroughly in this new take on the rape and revenge story. What follows from then on, what Promising Young Woman will provide will not leave your head either.
In the starring role is Carey Mulligan, playing Cassie Thomas. We’re introduced to Cassie at a bar, seemingly drunk, before being taken in by a man that introduces himself as a “nice guy,” perfectly setting the tone for this would-be revenge thriller. Cassie, having been traumatized by the rape and eventual death of her best friend Nina, seeks to exact vengeance upon those who have led her down this path. What soon follows is not any other revenge thriller but rather an interrogation of rape culture, taking on that same structure we’ve come to recognize over the years. What’s happened to Nina is thankfully never shown in the film, but in seeing how her tragedy is what pushes Cassie on
Emerald Fennell’s goal is an admirable one; and during its peaks, Promising Young Woman takes such a bold stance with regards to how people are far too willing to cast doubts on an accusation of rape – and ultimately where it leads. From the first moment onward, you’re seeing the perfect way in which a supposed “nice guy” can really have that cover blown off by what they’re ultimately tempted to take upon themselves (as shown again through a brilliant scene with Christopher Mintz-Plasse later on in the film), contrasting the fantasy that many rape-and-revenge thrillers of the past have created. We’ve seen in the film’s marketing, every man’s worst nightmare is getting accused of rape – but why must that overpower the fact that women in Cassie’s position have feared men who take that “nice guy” stance to their advantage?
At the center of this film is a career best performance from the always wonderful Carey Mulligan. In how she personifies Cassie, that vengeful spirit damaged by a person whom she loved so much having been taken away from her so cruelly after what she had undergone, Mulligan puts her all into that role. She manages to be both endearing and intimidating in the best possible ways, like the best-crafted heroes of these revenge films can be, going from Ms .45 or Lady Snowblood, leaving you with that idea she could easily be among those ranks. There’s never a moment where she’s onscreen where you’ll ever find yourself looking away out of fear, but curiosity for what she’ll do to the next man who dares cross her.
Surely enough, this movie will prove itself divisive – with the look of a rape-and-revenge thriller it can’t quite escape that feeling it’ll be exploitative and not enough at the same time. Nevertheless, there’s a refreshing feeling coming out from Fennell not showing Nina’s rape, because it’s something we’d seen too many times but the effect upon which it has left upon Cassie can still be felt. In seeing how it all adds up, Cassie has now turned towards the destructive, towards the people around her – but even to her own self. But there comes a question we ask ourselves about the devastating reality which the film’s ending proposes to its audience. Personally, I cannot say I am sure that it entirely works – but it becomes near impossible to delve into what the film proposes at said moment without spoiling it for those who have not seen it, so I cannot say much at the very moment.
Although I acknowledge my reservations about the direction in which the film had gone ultimately keep me from loving it, I can’t help but feel as if there will be many important talks about the way in which we approach rape culture coming forth as a result of how Promising Young Woman puts many of these positions to the test. In its moments of dark comedy it still flashes you with a more devastating picture, one that combats the culture which has only been perpetuated over the years by constantly buying into the “nice guy” mirage. At its very best, you still have a film that perfectly replicates the look you’d want a film of this sort to take on, but I can’t shake off that feeling that where it becomes too much, it turns itself into too little at the same time. When Emerald Fennell comes out with a new film, I do look forward to seeing how it will turn out.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Focus Features.
Directed by Emerald Fennell
Screenplay by Emerald Fennell
Produced by Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara, Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Ashley Fox, Emerald Fennell
Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton
Release Date: December 25, 2020
Running Time: 113 minutes