Remember this time last year when the trailer for Promising Young Woman played before practically every film? Peppering theatrical audiences with a haunting, orchestral rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and a woman’s wicked voice-over, detailing the revenge she reaps on men who’ve wronged her?
That’s just a taste of the stirring sensations oozing out of writer/director Emerald Fennell’s fantastic feature debut. Finally released eight months after originally intended, the film stars Carey Mulligan as Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas, an on-the-brink barista who dropped out of medical school (at the top of her class) under “unusual circumstances.” Moonlighting as a vigilante for feminist justice in the dimly lit corners of clubs on the weekends, Cassie assumes her persona as the Pied Piper of bad behavior.
Her revenge missions are simple: Pretend to be too intoxicated to stand, wait for a self-proclaimed “nice guy” to “help” her get home, play along while he inevitably begins to take advantage of her, repeatedly communicate her inability to give consent — and then reveal her stone-cold sobriety just in time to call him out. What follows is a montage of typical but nonetheless triggering toxic masculine responses that make one thing abundantly clear: These men are trash.
The most uncomfortable aspect of this thesis, however, is that we all know these men. They’re the kind of buttoned-up, business-casual bros who participate in groupthink, internet trolling, casual misogyny and sexual misconduct on their nights out. And what’s worse is they’ve been deemed “stand-up citizens” by society. With their predatory behavior hidden in plain sight, they represent the toxic, pervasive culture that’s conditioning the next generation of men, harming women and infecting all of our psyches in the process.
It’s a gutsy social commentary from a first-time director and one that sets Fennell’s film apart from others in the genre. Her heroine isn’t simply exacting revenge on her perpetrator and walking off into the sunset — she’s attempting to burn down the system that’s created her pain (and the pain of countless others like her), one guy who “deserves the benefit of the doubt” at a time. This daring flick is an unusual revenge fantasy: a spiky, tantalizing tale that’s part thriller, rom-com and survival story. It’s funny, dark, brash and sometimes sweet — like life, just turned up to full volume. With a stylish, violent sensibility that feels like something out of the Fennell-run second season of AMC’s “Killing Eve,” the film twists and turns with an intrigue that is as appealing as it is appalling.
At the helm of this hypnotic dichotomy is Mulligan, coyly dragging you into Cassie’s jaded world with an unapologetic rawness that’s unlike anything we’ve seen from the actress before. This demonstration of Mulligan’s range — as both victim and perpetrator — is so fearless and intoxicating that it nearly renders Cassie’s actions justifiable.
But why is this woman engaging in this vendetta to begin with? According to Cassie, she’s doing this as a means to serve justice for someone who couldn’t acquire any. Nina, her best friend since childhood, suffered a rape in college while Cassie was away, and after a series of hierarchical attempts to intimidate and discredit her, dropped out of school altogether. Unable to cope with the lasting effects of the trauma inflicted upon her, Nina (a character tellingly never shown on screen) is cared for by Cassie but is ultimately unable to be saved.
Carrying this injustice like a crusade for her dead best friend, Cassie is a martyr for those who’ve experienced trauma as well as those who’ve dealt with survivor’s guilt. She represents anguish and rage in a way that feels both wildly extreme and utterly cathartic. Her slippery footing between fantasy and reality is a tough tonal balance to achieve, let alone make relatable, but Mulligan executes it effortlessly. Her portrayal is slightly off-kilter and deeply unsettling, showing glimmers of Cassie’s once “promising” future as they bubble over during her happiest moments and simultaneously crumble as her past creeps up.
Cassie is complicated, unfiltered and wholly stunted as she attempts to cope with her trauma in a bevy of unhealthy mechanisms. Her particular cocktail includes obsession, mania and isolation (for starters), and it’s clear that this trauma has fully confined her life to one of existing, not really living. The only time her focus seems to steady is when she’s reaping the sins of seemingly “good” men. These covert missions give her purpose in a world filled with inexplicable, unjust horrors, and she clings to them as tightly as she does her trusty scrunchie as she writes in her conquest-chronicling diary. This revenge is her lifeline.
Cassie’s damaged-yet-empowered ethos echoes that of Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, and the two films are certainly compatible in terms of tone and overall message. This tale of victimhood-turned-survival — though extreme and ill-advised — gives Cassie the agency she needs to soldier on. Through this agonizing depiction of a woman who’s lost crucial parts of her identity at the hands of others, Promising Young Woman brilliantly underscores the often overlooked aspects of sexual trauma — namely how the act and its aftermath not only affects its victims but those who are close to them. Even though Cassie hasn’t been directly subjected to this reprehensible (and far too prevalent) behavior, she bears the burden like an invisible torch for her best friend.
Complementing Mulligan’s exquisite performance, the ensemble casting is nothing short of perfection. Cassie’s dysfunctional inner circle is composed of Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown as her parents; Laverne Cox as Gail, her no-nonsense coffee shop boss and confidant; and Eighth Grade writer/director Bo Burnham as Ryan, her eccentric love interest. Rounded out by a few distressing cameos from Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Sam Richardson and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as well as a dissenting female chorus made up of Alison Brie and Connie Britton, Fennell stacks the deck with well-known faces in unfamiliar spaces.
Perhaps the most surprisingly successful casting choice here is Burnham, playing a pediatric surgeon and former med school classmate of Cassie’s who reenters her life and disarms her with his charming, nerdy repartee. Burnham bestows a sharp sensitivity and sweet self-deprecation onto his character that distinguishes him from other typically vanilla romantic partner roles, which in turn persuades viewers to root for him. His and Cassie’s convincing romance is an unexpectedly vital anchor in a film that would otherwise run screaming from something so seemingly conventional and sentimental.
The plot thickens, however, once Cassie learns that Al Monroe (Chris Lowell, Netflix’s “GLOW”), the ringleader of Nina’s demise, is coming back to town for a bachelor party thrown by his best bro, Joe (Greenfield, the inarguable king of TV nice guys as Schmidt from “New Girl”). Rounding out a lineup of actors who’ve likewise played lovable male characters — namely Brody (Seth Cohen from “The O.C.”) and Mintz-Plasse (Superbad’s McLovin’) — the film boldly suggests that it’s exactly these types of guys who practice behavior we’ve come to primarily relegate to “bad men.” They consider themselves to be decent, telling women they’re “safe” in their presence, but their actions are often to the contrary. Fennell’s script deftly refutes any excuse they conjure as a defense and denies the forgiveness they so desperately seek. It’s this type of shrewd maneuvering that brilliantly exposes our ingrained cultural attitudes and compels us to rethink our actions and assumptions surrounding sexual assault entirely.
However, this ugly exposure isn’t limited just to Fennell’s male characters. When Cassie seeks out two women from her past, her pious former classmate Madison (Brie) and skeptical ex-disciplinary dean (Britton), she confronts the damaging, internalized misogyny women can (unknowingly or not) project onto other women. Compounding this with a barrage of dismissive sentiments ripped right from the headlines of every major public sexual assault case (“Was she drinking?” “What was she wearing?” “Didn’t she know better?”), Promising Young Woman shines a glaring light on the collective belittling (and subsequent abuse) of women that much of society fosters, inflicts and perpetuates.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, though, as the film’s visual flair provides a delicious and welcome reprieve. Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun’s gaze oscillates between blissful cotton-candy-colored hues and their dark, twisty underbellies. The screen is flooded with bright pops of pink, neon and pastels to contrast Cassie’s murky inner turmoil, and, in doing so, cleverly layers a sense of whimsy atop its sinister subject. It’s highly stylized, thoughtfully executed and truly sumptuous — the kind of filmmaking that makes me want to watch it again and again.
Adding to the film’s intensity is a character unto itself: a truly audacious soundtrack that should be in contention for the best of the year. Utilizing a lineup of bright, poppy hits like Charli XCX’s “Boys,” Fletcher’s “Last Laugh” and a ridiculously memorable drugstore singalong of Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” the selections reel viewers in just enough to feel sonically safe amid their visual discomfort. Juxtaposing this familiarity with more mischievous moods like Donna Missal’s “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby,” Carmen DeLeon’s “He Hit Me” and its signature anthem, Anthony Willis’ instrumental “Toxic,” the film’s music flawlessly mirrors Cassie’s topsy-turvy mindset. From the first cue to the last, I was utterly hooked as these perverse, empowering anthems unnerved and inspired in equal measure.
Fennell’s unwavering artistic voice makes a clear case for why she’s a filmmaker to watch, and, coupled with its stellar visuals, perfectly cued needle drops and memorable performances, Promising Young Woman thoroughly shocks and entertains while carefully unpacking a deathly serious subject. Viewers waver between having a blast, feeling uncomfortable and wanting revenge in a way that feels completely authentic to the narrative. Fennell’s sophisticated, self-assured direction serves as the perfect medium for Mulligan’s messy inner femme fatale, and together, the two create a multifaceted filmmaking duo that I hope to see more from.
Without spoiling the final act, it needs to be said that the film’s climax will be undoubtedly polarizing. The ending confidently delivers a conclusion, but it’s not quite the satisfying punch I’d come to expect after 90 minutes of electricity. With its slightly waning pace and so-so ending, Promising Young Woman isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly the kind of buzzy film you’ll want to watch and discuss with your friends. It not only deserves a larger conversation — it demands it, and I suspect once audiences see it, it’ll create one.
Starts Dec. 25 at AMC River Hills 10 and the Carolina Cinemark