How could a film this palpably angry be so gleefully entertaining? How could a film that is, ostensibly, a disturbing tragedy be so compulsively watchable? Such is the mystifying brilliance of Promising Young Woman, so deft in its navigation of conflicting styles and contradictory thematic emotions that it’s something of a miracle. Odd to feel grateful for a film experience that moves in waves of invigorating jolts and stunning gut punches, but that emphasizes the brilliance of Emerald Fennell as both writer and director, crafting this work of unimaginable nuance that still coalesces into a singular point-of-view.
Fennell has been working as an actress and writer for years, but on the evidence of this, her feature directorial debut, something fierce had been simmering within her and now comes boiling over with an intensity that cannot be contained. But Fennell is far more keenly focused as an auteur than so many first-time filmmakers. Promising Young Woman hits with blunt force, yes, but also razor-sharp precision – its punches are big but not broad, and Fennell proves to be a master at keeping the audience on the ropes.
On its face, the film is a revenge thriller, one of the more well-worn subgenres of all-time. And indeed, the opening credits play over an extended tracking shot of Cassie (Carey Mulligan) walking down the street with bright red dripping down her arm and onto her clothes, the aftermath of the previous night’s encounter with an attempted date rapist. As “It’s Raining Men” blares on the soundtrack, we aren’t sure what just happened or what comes next, and Fennell’s screenplay carefully ensures that riveting uncertainty is maintained for every remaining second of the film’s running time.
Cassie is indeed out for revenge, but her methods are, shall we say, unconventional, and her ultimate purpose is unclear, only gradually coming into focus as Fennell’s script unfurls. Ultimately, this is a character study about the lasting damage of trauma and the depths of obsession. Cassie has a long list of “victims” and constructs her life around her “conquests,” to such an extent that her life has ground to a halt. She lives at home with parents who have been driven into a sort of comatose state by her refusal to move out. She works, badly, at a coffee shop where her only friend is the manager (Laverne Cox) who openly considers firing her, if only in the hopes that it will force her to realize her true potential. Once at the top of her class in medical school, Cassie dropped out after experiencing a traumatic event, the details of which are not as predictable as one might imagine. We only vaguely come to understand what happened in the aftermath, but now, years later, Cassie lives only on the cyclical satisfaction of vengeance. She’s a superhero of emasculating embarrassment.
But as we know, the life of a superhero is very lonely. In truth, Cassie has abandoned all that once made her whole, and now only functions as a conduit of retribution. One of the sneaking twists that Fennell concocts is an opportunity for Cassie to make herself whole once again, when a former acquaintance (Bo Burnham) re-enters her life with the possibility of that which would threaten Cassie’s entire operation: a real relationship. Through it all, Mulligan is absolutely brilliant – in a role that requires outward sardonic wit shielding inward torment and boiling rage that gets upended by a sneaking desire for hope, she somehow fuses all these emotions into a cohesive whole. Cassie is one of the most indelible characters of 2020 and is in many ways the ideal embodiment of the year’s emotional torrent.
Fennell’s screenplay is inextricably connected to its protagonist – like Cassie, it is always three steps ahead of us, and it balances vicious attitude, a sly sense of humor, deep sadness, and visceral anger. It’s a structural marvel, peppering in the revenge sequences as episodes within the overarching narrative of the central character, somehow delivering a perfect three-act story even after we think it might have veered off course. Stylistically, the film is bright and sassy, with a neon glow and a candy coating, a sort of ironic twist on the darkness of both the revenge thriller and Cassie’s backstory, set to the tune of pop hits that somehow hit harder in this context than they ever did on Top 40 radio. This includes a perfect sequence, a montage that almost feels cut like a music video, which devises the best-ever use (perhaps the only good use?) of Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” a song with a lyric that offers “let’s see what love can do.” Promising Young Woman seems to say that love can do nothing or everything – it all depends on who the lovers are. And we sit on the edges of our seats, worried that the sky will fall at any moment, hoping Cassie knows what the hell she’s doing. But one thing’s for sure: Emerald Fennell sure does.