Warning: Contains Spoilers
With five Oscar nominations (including the monumental best picture and best director) and six Bafta nominations and two wins, Promising Young Woman is undoubtedly a popular awards contender. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival back in January 2020, the revenge thriller has faced significant delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, but thankfully the awards film is now available to watch in the UK.
Directed by Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) Promising Young Woman centres on thirty-year-old Cassie (Carey Mulligan) who was once a promising young medical student, but following a mysterious tragedy, is now a jaded barista by day and vigilante at night. She spends her evenings at clubs pretending to be blindly intoxicated, luring in opportunistic sexual predators disguised as nice guys, to exact her own brand of justice and retribution to try and help right a previous wrong. However, when a cute doctor, who was a previous student on her medical course, walks into the coffee shop (Bo Burnham) and asks her out on a date, will he prove a significant turning point in Cassie’s life?
Fennell’s blistering debut tackles a number of timely and weighty themes including grief, sexual abuse and gender politics, cleverly wrapped up in a thrilling revenge drama. The Killing Eve writer cleverly subverts our expectations with the bubblegum colours, ‘nice guy’ actors and pop soundtrack, lulling the audience into a false sense of security, before expertly pulling the rug out from beneath us. The blurring of lines in the narrative from dark drama to rom-com, thanks to the introduction of Bo Burnham’s Ryan, also completely lulls us into a false sense of security. Just like our lead character, this film is an unpredictable beast; at times you believe Cassie might actually be happy with Ryan and leave her vendetta behind her – but then Fennell hits you with that absolute gut punch. While Promising Young Woman is primarily a revenge thriller, there’s no catharsis here – this is a study of how grief can consume and define you.
Simmering throughout is a bold and damming social commentary challenging consent and rape culture, along with accepted behaviours and language. Too often women who are victims of sexual abuse are told that it was their fault for getting drunk or wearing too revealing clothing – that they were “were asking for it.” As Cassie adds yet another mark in her notebook following an encounter with a ‘nice guy’, there’s a disappointing realisation that this happens far too often, as most of the women watching will unfortunately understand with their own experiences. But it’s not just men’s behaviour put under the spotlight, women who enable and accept this behaviour, such as Connie Britton’s Dean Walker, are also targeted. Her comments “we have to give these boys the benefit of the doubt” and “what would you have me do? Ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this?” represent the real bias and dismissive nature when reporting abuse. There’s plenty of anger and emotion here, pointed at the uncomfortable truths which are often swept under the rug, but there are no easy answers.
This a career best performance from the ever brilliant Carey Mulligan who poses an impressive duality. Her outwardly disarming feminine blond waves and often pale pink attire often give way to a deep cynicism and emotional rage. Turning to vigilantism, Cassie is sadly unable to let go of the past and the loss of her friend. Bo Burnham is also fantastic as the endearing and charming young doctor who sweeps you off your feet, and for a time Fennell leads you into believing he’s who Cassie needs to free her from her vendetta. However all genre expectations are thrown out the window, and Burnham surprisingly embraces a darker side of Ryan. The casting of the film’s ‘nice guys’ is also a stroke of genius, with established endearing actors from projects such as The OC, New Girl and GLOW in Adam Brody, Chris Lowell and Max Greenfield.
There’s plenty of other stark contrasts throughout the film too, such as the bold neon lights of the clubs Cassie visits and the pastel pinks and floral patterns of her feminine wardrobe. Furthermore the soundtrack, consisting of bubbly pop from female artists such as Charlie XCX, DeathbyRomy and a fun montage featuring Paris Hilton(!), is starkly contrasted with Anthony B. Willis’ haunting score, particularly his menacing arrangement of Britney Spear’s “Toxic”. There’s also plenty of overtly angelic imagery smattered throughout, particularly with the coffee shop’s halo logo, which reinforces Cassie’s avenging angel status.
Pairing a blistering social commentary and a career best performance from Mulligan, Promising Young Woman is definitely one of the most important films of the year. Despite the ever divisive shocking final act, which will undoubtedly sit with you for a while, there’s no denying the weight of the bold and timely themes brought to light.