Here is a film that’s charged by contemporary sentiments yet borrows heavily from the past, riffing on titles such as I Spit on Your Grave, Ms. 45 and Hard Candy. Like those films, Promising Young Woman is a rape revenge drama that’s far too improbable and genre-inflected to be taken seriously. This is more of a problem for director Emerald Fennell than it was for Meir Zarchi (I Spit), Abel Ferrara (Ms. 45) and David Slade (Hard Candy), because Fennell’s film has the greatest pretense of being an ‘issue’ drama.
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, an angsty barista who dropped out of medical school following the rape of her friend Nina, whose case was dismissed by the dean and the legal system. Stewing in her parents’ home at the age of 30, Cassie spends her evenings feigning drunkenness at local clubs, luring men to private places and excoriating them when they try to take advantage of her.
The first instance of this is compelling for two reasons. First, we don’t know that Cassie is acting, and second, her target’s behaviour is skin-crawlingly believable. When Jerry (Adam Brody) spots her alone and seemingly wasted, he adopts the nice guy shtick and orders her a taxi home, yet reroutes the journey to his apartment and plies her with even more alcohol. Soon, he’s writhing himself over a girl who can barely speak. However, his dirty opportunism is cut short when Cassie says, with a distinctly sober voice, “What are you doing?”
It’s a strong opener that’s well performed, yet it is quickly undermined by the facetious credits that follow, in which a barefoot Cassie swaggers down the street in slow motion, jam streaming down her arm from the pastry she’s nonchalantly chewing. So unladylike, so powerful. This ‘badass female’ moment is adorned by credits written in a fabulous pink font, creating a drag aesthetic that’s bolstered by a goth-pop cover of It’s Raining Men. This frivolity tries to persuade us that Cassie is an aspirational figure, when in fact she is a deeply sad person consumed by vengeance and anger.
Cassie’s not entirely cynical, though. Her softness is revealed by Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate who asks her out during a chance meeting at the coffee shop. Despite her wariness, Cassie manages to enjoy herself, proving that she is not entirely jaded by Nina’s trauma. However, when Ryan tells her about the upcoming marriage of Al Monroe, Nina’s rapist, Cassie hatches a sweeping plan of vengeance against those who either disputed or enabled her friend’s suffering.
It is here that Promising Young Woman becomes total revenge fantasy. Her targets include Madison (Alison Brie), a smug kept woman who denies that Nina was raped, and Elizabeth (Connie Britton), the medical school dean who dismissed Nina’s case for a lack of evidence. Although Fennell is effective in loading these characters with familiar prejudices and hypocrisies, the way in which Cassie delivers their comeuppance turns them into vehicles for the film’s ‘gotcha’ crusade. It’s a spectacle that’s not only completely improbable but also vindictive and unbecoming.
Aside from serving these coldest of revenge dishes, Cassie also exercises ad-hoc justice against a shooting gallery of male chauvinist pigs, who are seemingly omnipresent. Boorish construction workers, aggressive motorists – Cassie sorts them all out with an increasingly smug, steely demeanour. It’s tiresomely detached from the reality of anger and vengeance, which is messy, undignified and often mutually damaging. It’s symptomatic of a film that’s more interested in eliciting “Yaass queen” rather than a mature emotional response. All of this has one yearning for a serious, grown up film. A film that does justice to the terrible trauma lost in Promising Young Woman‘s sugary aesthetic. A film such as The Accused, which presents the gut wrenching reality of sexual violence and the courage needed to confront its perpetrators.
But just as you’re ready to dismiss Promising Young Woman as lightweight fantasy, there’s that ending. It begins as another improbably neat act of vigilante justice, morphs into something foolishly cruel, and then completely sideswipes you in a brutal twist of fate that compares with the darkest film noir. Although this is soon blunted by the final resolution, which applies another layer of foundation to its muddled revenge fantasy.
Wherever one falls on Promising Young Woman, no one will dispute its ability to stir the hearts and minds of its audience. However, despite the strength of Mulligan’s performance, it’s power to provoke may speak to the volatility of sexual politics rather than the craft of Emerald Fennell’s debut film, which is lost in a middle ground between exploitation and issue drama.