From the first moments where Carey Mulligan lights up the screen in her conservatively revealing outfit and Harley Quinn reminiscent makeup, we can tell she is serious. A business rooted in years of trauma and regret, now just bubbling up to the surface in the form of a grandiose middle finger to the old (and slowly dying) adage “boys will be boys”. In a time when masculinity has been broken down, and its dark side deeply exposed in the wake of “Me Too”, empowering female heroines looking to challenge the antique status quo with a reserved elegance has never been more crucial. In the wickedly dark comedy-thriller Promising Young Woman, even that can’t be done straight. There just has to be a wild antithesis in play, writer-director Emerald Fennell assures that and it gives Mulligan the chance to shine in one of her greatest performances to date.
She portrays the steadfast Cassie Thomas, once a hard-working med student with a bright future. But years after a tortuous incident forced her to drop out, she continues to claw her way back, working in a coffee shop and staying at home with her overly supportive parents Stanley (Clancy Brown) and Susan (Jennifer Coolidge). To them, and to boss Gail (Laverne Cox), the shift in her psyche is a bleak mystery, waiting to be unraveled the deeper we explore just where Cassie’s coming from. Unchecked emotional repression has a way of escaping in often-unorthodox manners. For her, it’s freelance vigilante work. Every Friday night, she plays the damsel waiting for a strong or intelligent man to sweep her off the ground. Until she pulls the rug over them from underneath and locks the door from the outside.
Having been the prey without realizing it more times than could be counted, Cassie’s readiness has built up most methodically. Having been singled out as one of the few women in her peer group at the collegiate level only led to further victimization. Her approach to vengeance is as personal as it could get, with one of her closest friends having been nearby at the time of the aggressive incident, one that’s never shown on screen. Though the agony it left Cassie could never leave her face, or her mind. It’s what fuels her motivation, and it’s certainly what allows Mulligan to bear her claws and be ready for the figurative scratch.
In her first on-screen performance since 2018’s Wildlife, a quietly powerful family yarn where her motherly lead stole the show, Mulligan continues to solidify her consistency. Playing a nearly aimless daughter in need of a nudge from the nest, her parents literally gift her a pair of luggage as a birthday gift as a subtle gesture to move out. Mulligan effortlessly gives Cassie the equalized attributes of a teen rebel, a cape-less superhero (producer Margot Robbie’s influence may be most noticeable here), and a starlet compelled to rise above a skirmish. Neither outweighs the other two, owning up to Cassie’s complex profile. Combining the three amounts to Mulligan going the high octane, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill route, respectively noncommittal to the accompanying depth it poses.
Moreover, that is where Fennell’s writing style steps in. For such a dark tale rooted in the truth of cyclical assault and the healthy steps to answer back, Fennell (in her directorial debut after much experience in her own rights as actress and novelist) takes a giant risk adding a slickly comic sheen to cut the tension. Deadpool would be proud, at least up until the third act when for the sake of closure; dramatic seriousness must take the lead. Whenever it does, in a consistent bobbing-and-weaving motion for much of the first hour, we get a good chunk of motivation from a solid supporting cast, many of them targets in Cassie’s game, with one person posing the ultimate distraction.
Fellow former classmate Madison (Alison Brie) is just one familiar face she’d rather soon forget, having been just as close to their mutual friend on that night, the grief bugging her brain. Next there’s Mr. Green (Alfred Molina), a criminal defense attorney burned out after many failed victim cases. Followed soon after by Dean Walker (Connie Britton), one of Cassie’s favorite administrators who never knew how to handle the tragedy in a manner befitting that wouldn’t risk her campus’s reputation. Without being fully aware of Cassie’s motives, they’re still somewhat furiously disapproving. She doesn’t know when to quit, even when the work leaves her with many an ounce of hesitation. She’s determined, otherwise to play out each night the same way, crossing off her male encounters like a tally list in her diary.
We get that aspect in minor but merited character appearances to represent those successful men wrongly convinced they can get away with anything. Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Jerry (Adam Brody), Joe (Max Greenfield), and soon-to-be-wed Al (Chris Lowell) were just some examples who sold the bit, and left a ghastly chill with just how real their characters appeared. The exception is Ryan (a confident Bo Burnham), a once likeminded academic peer of Cassie’s with whom she strikes a romantic bond, and who helps to keep her focus on the beaten path. Mulligan and Burnham have some building chemistry, and one wishes there had been more time for their relationship to naturally blossom.
Fennell is clearly stepping into untested waters; once all that remains out of the water is the level head, there’s no turning back. It gets dark, and obscenely devilish in a hurry, and stays there without warning, again intercutting mild, sarcastic lightheartedness to lessen the coil being tightly wound before our eyes. Likely at the cost of the shock and awe missing its landing by a tiny fraction. But Promising stays on its feet, buoyant and full of surprise. Aided by editor Frédéric Thoraval (Peppermint) seamless arranging each tonal fragment with care, composer Anthony Willis (One Last Night) sonically elevating its depth including that now-legendary string heavy spin of a Britney Spears gem, and a selection of choice needle drops ranging from Paris Hilton to Tchaikovsky, Fennell makes a captivating, if not entirely flawless directorial debut. A tad rough, but the act stays together throughout.
Nothing you have seen about this film could prepare for what really goes down by the end of it. Promising Young Woman is a tough film to stomach, its realism determined to unsettle some. If I was caught off guard, audiences best be warned for a similar reaction But that’s the point, it should be for a plot based on the anarchic qualities of toxic masculinity and the culture around it, still lessening a determinable safety which must improve. Mulligan may be portraying a heroine deliberate in playing along with thoughtless individuals committing bait and switch tactics for personal gain. Nevertheless, just like the rest of Fennell’s cast, she slays the character in such a raw, human manner, blending in with the rest of this madcap work of cinematic caution that’s easily one of the year’s best. A holiday gift with all the bells and whistles, and the thematic guts to go places we were unsure we could. If it manages to get a middle finger up in the air at the end of your viewing to be a cause for change, it did its job. (A-; ⅘ Horns Up!)
Promising Young Women is in theaters Christmas Day, with VOD to follow in mid-January; rated R for strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use; 113 minutes.