starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton
written and directed by Emerald Fennell
Please take every precaution if you insist on risking your health and that of others to see this movie in a theatre. Wear a mask (over the nose, too, sport), practise social distancing, and don't be a dick.
by Walter Chaw Hyphenate Emerald Fennell's feature debut Promising Young Woman trails the same kind of buzz that accompanied David Slade's Hard Candy 15 years ago. Here, that buzz says, is a film that will turn the tables on predators in a meaningful way; it purports to put the bad guys on notice that things are about to change for them: the hunters will now enjoy a bitter draught of their own medicine. Delicious! Unfortunately, like Hard Candy, Promising Young Woman is a sheep in wolf's clothing, a mousetrap made out of wax, good intentions, and the right politics that pulls its punches in absurd, and absurdly consistent, ways. It doesn't help. It doesn't discover a new way to have an old conversation. And at the end of it all, it manufactures an ending in which the authorities it's spent its entire thesis crucifying as ineffectual are relied upon to be the cavalry coming to save the day. Promising Young Woman is the punk that wants very much to be acceptable to the system against which it's rebelling. At least it has some effective performances.
Cassandra (Carrie Mulligan), once a week, goes to a bar, pretends to be fall-down drunk so some creep can offer to take her home, and gets almost raped (sometimes does) before revealing that she's, in fact, sober. Then she writes it all down in a little book she keeps at home. If you were hopeful that this was a serial-killer film in which a woman uses herself as bait, keep walking. No, Cassie gives these scumbags a stern talking-to because she's trying to redress the harm done to a med-school buddy who was gang-raped or something and either died or killed herself as a result. It's fair to think that Promising Young Woman is now going to be about how all of her attempts at fixing her trauma on behalf of her friend's murder (by act or consequence of the same) are the product of a deluding PTSD, thus explaining why her plan doesn't make any sense--but, you know, just keep walking. I mean, Cassie is set up as smart enough to know that locking herself, unarmed, in a small room with a guy she knows fully intends to rape her is probably going to end with her getting raped and maybe murdered. Promising Young Woman would be a more interesting film if it were Breaking the Waves and her body's defilement the point. It is not Breaking the Waves.
I think this character is named "Cassandra" because Cassandra was the seer in Greek mythology given the gift of second sight yet doomed to be ignored. She gets killed, of course; no one likes a know-it-all. As played by Mulligan, Cassandra is extremely charismatic in the acerbic, hyper-intelligent way Elizabeth Perkins used to be. If this film came out in 1988, Perkins would undoubtedly have starred in it. Or Linda Fiorentino. Or maybe Elizabeth Peña. Mulligan is great, though. She gives up her goal-less mission halfway through when she meets and falls for tall pediatrician Ryan (Bo Burnham), who is funny in a way that John Cusack would have been funny if this came out in 1988. Then more stuff happens, and the opposite of what we were hoping to see in Promising Young Woman unfolds, as first an older woman is psychologically brutalized for not having done enough within an institutional bureaucracy to investigate Cassie's friend's assault, then another woman is made to believe she's gotten sauced and maybe raped by a stranger over lunch, and then the capper: a third woman is physically brutalized in a scene so protracted that I presume it was meant to be funny. It's very not funny, alas, because I spent the whole movie waiting for the scene where Cassie gets raped and murdered but was hoping I wouldn't actually see that sort of violation of a woman's body as the setup and punchline to some cosmic gag.
There is no argument to be made that women are treated equitably in the aftermath of assaults. They aren't believed, their character is destroyed, they're revictimized, and what we know of the world is that the vast majority of assaults aren't even reported or, once reported, not investigated, much less punished. It's fucked up. Insult to injury: victims of assault have spent the last four years watching a disgusting pigfuck occupy the most powerful post on the planet. Promising Young Woman exposits all of these talking points. "It's always about the promising young man, but what about the victim?" and "A man's greatest fear is this, but a woman's greatest fear is getting killed!" I get it. It's an endless horrorshow, and change is overdue and necessary. Promising Young Woman mouths the words but only really works during a sequence in a late-night pharmacy where Ryan woos Cassie by singing along and dancing to a Paris Hilton track. Though not as good as the lip-synch sequence to, say, Jefferson Starship in The Skeleton Twins, or the lip-synch sequence to Rihanna in American Honey, the chemistry between Burnham and Mulligan is real. I wish the film spent more time with them before opening its puzzle-box for a genuinely ugly conclusion that undermines the message and a Pollyannaish denouement that makes the cops who make things worse the heroes who make everything better. Promising Young Woman squanders Mulligan, frankly, who's at the absolute top of her game. She's a shark in a wading pool: out of place and doomed. But, man, the potential for it to do harm were it in the right body of water...