PLOT: A young med school dropout (Carey Mulligan) compulsively haunts dive bars and night clubs, looking to be picked up by predatory men to teach them painful lessons about consent. When an old friend (Bo Burnham) wanders back into her life, she finds herself torn between a desire to live a “normal” life and an opportunity for revenge that, ultimately, might be too enticing to ignore.
REVIEW: PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is being billed as “a new take on revenge”, but to describe it that way is ultimately selling audiences a much simpler film than writer-director Emerald Fennell (one of the people behind “Killing Eve”) delivers. It’s far from the straightforward, edgy thriller it’s being marketed at. Rather, it’s a deeply nuanced, scathingly observed and often uncomfortably hilarious exploration of the desire to both avenge trauma and move past it, with a show-stopping performance by Carey Mulligan in a role that’s unlike anything she’s ever done before.
In some ways, yes, this is kind of a revenge movie, but a highly unconventional one that’s largely free of violence (with one jarring and devastating exception) and one that challenges its audience at every turn. Here, Mulligan plays a former med student who, following the sexual assault and subsequent suicide of her best friend, is now a shell of her former self, living only to confront the many men she finds that have no qualms about forcing themselves on drunk women.
Inevitably, many will prejudge PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN based on the trailer and premise, but it’s a lot more layered than that suggests. The film does indeed have a lot to say about the retroactive defense many perpetrators use when they get caught years later, being that they were “kids”, or they were “drunk” and are really “nice guys” while their defense demolishes their accusers. For a look at how pervasive this is in the culture, one need only look at the Weinstein trial or any of the college rape cases we hear about regularly. However, men are not the film’s only target, with enabling women getting just as vicious treatment, with an especially challenging chunk for the film relating to Mulligan’s treatment of a former friend (Alison Brie) and a college dean (Connie Britton) who, in their own ways, were just as vicious as the men.
Through it all, Fennell constantly challenges the audience, with Mulligan not always sympathetic, while it also acknowledges that occasionally some people do indeed change for the better. Alfred Molina has a killer cameo as a formerly predatory lawyer who’s obsessed with redeeming himself somewhat, while the likable Bo Burnham, through his charming chemistry with Mulligan, gives us hope throughout that things just may turn out ok after all. Maybe.
It all adds up to a staggering conclusion, with Fennell’s shock ending one of the gutsiest finales in recent memory, something that I’m sure she had to fight tooth and nail to include but gives the film a kick in the guts that’s hard to shake. And, as dark and upsetting as it is at times, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is also hilarious, with razor-sharp dialogue, and a fun cast (there’s a whole slew of familiar faces, including Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, Jennifer Coolidge, the great Clancy Brown, and Laverne Cox). Mulligan anchors it all with a performance that’s a strong change of pace, with her seeming to relish the edgy, potentially iconic role (I could see some of her looks in this becoming cosplay favorites).
It’s worth noting Fennell’s also made a film that’s gorgeous to look at, with neon cinematography by Benjamin Kracun, who also did a great job shooting the underrated British indie HYENA a few years ago. The soundtrack is popping with great song selections and covers, and through it all, Fennell delivers a film that’s so distinctive it could (and should) put her on the map as one of the hottest up and coming directors out there.
Suffice to say, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is a movie that shouldn’t be dismissed based on the type of film some might “think” it’s going to be. To be fair though, it’s so nuanced I don’t think you possibly could sell the film accurately with a trailer, making it something that needs to be watched, absorbed and discussed. Whatever you think this is going to be – you don’t know the half of it.