Promising Young Woman (Review)

Existing at the border between two genres which shouldn’t get along, Promising Young Woman breaks down barriers in an entertaining, and emotionally impactful way. 

Countless movies these days are predicated on the concept of revenge. The main character has experienced some sort of tragedy and so they are motivated to seek retribution from those who they believe are responsible. It’s a tried and true approach because it works, over and over again. It’s easy to relate with a main character when they have had something terrible happen to them. But also the film doesn’t have to spend time justifying why it is suddenly acceptable for that character to reciprocate the terrible things they’ve experienced. More importantly, you don’t have to feel bad for finding enjoyment in the pain of others. 

Directed By: Emerald Fennell
Written By: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie
Release Date: December 25, 2020

Promising Young Woman is the latest “revenge” movie, but it does its thing in a new and unique way. For one, the film’s motivation isn’t exactly revenge. The film’s motivation is exactly that: finding one’s motivation in the face of unspeakable tragedy. We’re not all John Wick or Danny Ocean. Normal people are beaten down by the unfortunately grim occurrences of life. We take our licks, but don’t always have the ability or resources to come back swinging. Sometimes life is so disheartening that it changes us forever, and there isn’t really anything we can do to fix it. 

Such is the predicament of Cassie Thomas, who is the main character in Promising Young Woman. She is a thirty year old woman who works at a coffee shop and lives with her parents after dropping out of medical school. Through the course of the film we slowly learn more and more about Cassie’s predicament. A tragedy in her past has caused her to lose hope in the establishment. The only thing which empowers her anymore are her nightly excursions to bars and strip clubs. She plays the inebriated flirt, waiting for the good Samaritan who wants to help her home but really just wants to manipulate her into having sex with him. 

Cassie is in control of the situation the entire time. Her enjoyment comes from revealing that she is sober at the final precipice right before the night’s events go too far. She smiles watching the men try to explain themselves, and shocks them into realizing their own terrible behavior. Cassie’s endgame is preventing sexual assault, one desperate guy at a time. We find out how her life had been impacted by sexual assault in the past, and this late night behavior is the only way she is able to recapture the power she lost. It’s the only thing that seems to have direction in her life, despite the futility of her efforts. 

Through investigating Cassie’s past, the film has a powerful message about how poorly society deals with sexual assault, specifically by dismissing or overlooking the concerns of the victims. This by itself is a very serious topic, and perhaps in many other applications it would not be something that could be considered entertaining in a cinematic format. And yet, Promising Young Woman strikes a perfect balance between being insightful regarding the pain of sexual assault victims while also delivering an exhilarating film watching experience. Part of it is the use of the “revenge” model, but also part of it is because of how creative the film becomes.    

At one point in the film, Cassie runs into a man who used to be one of her classmates. Despite Cassie’s reservations about dating, they hit it off and soon start a relationship. This changes Cassie’s outlook on life in a way she didn’t think was possible. For the first time in as long as she can remember, there is hope in her life for the future, and not just monotonous indifference. Most importantly, it helps give her the confidence she needs to try and get a resolution to the tragic events in her past. 

This is where the “revenge” dial gets turned up. With more confidence coming from a fulfilling relationship, she takes more and more risk in her efforts of confronting and getting even with the people who wronged her in the past. Towards this effort the film’s whip-smart dialogue and wonderful pacing do wonders. The film becomes exciting and shocking, but in a different way than how it introduced itself. It isn’t your typical one-note revenge story, it evolves as it goes along.

There is this delicate balance of Cassie’s thirst for revenge vs. her desire to become the person she was meant to be before the tragedy of her past complicated her life. Neither focus seems like it can be the same person, and yet they are. She essentially has to learn to live her own life again. It speaks to how deep Cassie’s character is, but also of the turmoil that victims of sexual assault must deal with on a daily basis. Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Cassie is perfect for the character. Caery exudes this intelligence that makes the decisions of the character seem plausible, even if her actions seem illogical. She is simultaneously strong and vulnerable, functional and dysfunctional at the same time. 

The other attribute of the film which really stood out to me was the direction. The film feels like a mash-up between a gritty revenge thriller and a sappy romantic comedy. Those two genres don’t usually have overlap, but Director Emerald Fennell pulls it off. She casts the film in these beautiful bright colors during the day, making it seem like a Wes Anderson movie where everyone lives a toy-like surrealist existence. But at night, when Cassie is on the prowl the picture becomes dark and high-contrast, full of neon light and tension. Together these approaches illustrate Cassie’s existence, split between harsh reality and an idealistic world where people just try to pretend bad things don’t happen or exist. 

The best accolated I can offer Fennell is that she is able to create a very entertaining film. For all the reasons I mentioned above it works on many different levels. The film’s tone may be uneven because of the two genres it straddles between, but it makes for an exciting experience unlike anything you’ve watched before. Add in a strong confidence in both the director and her star and you have a film that achieves what it set out to do without conceding to the pitfalls of either genre it takes its inspiration from. 

The film ends in a very shocking way. At first it feels like a departure from the development of the plot, but it will linger with you to become a fitting summation of the experience as a whole. The subject matter is something that would have traditionally been approached in a more delicate way. By tying into something as recognizable as a revenge flick, the audience is motivated with a similar one-track mind as the protagonist. When the film switches gears into romantic comedy mode, the jarring departure reminds us of what she has lost. The audience is drawn into the inherent entertainment factor of each genre because it has been ingrained in us, but the juxtaposition between them creates the friction which causes us to consider the subject matter with deeper pause. That allows the film to be entertaining without exploiting the protagonist’s plight for our selfish pleasure.