Over a decade ago, Carey Mulligan portrayed a bright-eyed naive teenage girl in An Education who is deceived and seduced by an older man. In my review, I compared Mulligan to Audrey Hepburn and predicted that “she’s going to be a star, and someone to keep on the to-watch list.” In Promising Young Woman, Mulligan has secured her place as not just a “star” but as an exciting, creative, captivating artist; she gives a performance which I think may surpass her first Oscar-nominated role all those years ago. In her portrayal of Cassie Thomas, Mulligan is no longer bright-eyed or naive; she’s a cunning and confident woman carrying wounds of past traumas while also seeking to inflict similar wounds on those who hurt others, namely out-of-control men. Writer/director Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is bold, brilliant, and blistering in its evisceration of our male-dominated culture, while Carey Mulligan’s daring performance is a career-best.
Cassie was once a bright student in medical school alongside her best friend, Nina. After an incident occurred to Nina, Cassie dropped out not only of med school, but of much of any social life. She lives with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) while working as a barista in a coffee shop, and her only apparent friendship is Gail (Laverne Cox), her boss at the café, who worries Cassie isn’t living up to her potential. But Cassie is keeping busy; she dresses up, goes to seedy bars and nightclubs, pretends to be blackout drunk, and allows pervy men to try to take advantage of her. These guys are all losers and creeps, but probably wouldn’t think of themselves that way. Which is precisely Cassie’s point—when she suddenly wakes up and reveals how sober she actually is, it’s just as sobering of a moment for the men, whose gropes quickly turn to groans. Her nightly serial attacks are upended, however, when she becomes romantically reacquainted with pediatric surgeon Ryan (Bo Burnham), a nice guy she went to med school with. Yet even this encounter proves to be all-too-brief as the events surrounding Nina continue to haunt Cassie, prompting her to set an elaborate plan into motion which will bring all the dark unspoken truths out into the light.
What I find so interesting and compelling about Promising Young Woman is how it’s less about vengeance and more about seeking justice. Those two concepts—vengeance and justice—are too often confused in American filmmaking, but this is where Promising Young Woman offers a brash and novel vision. Cassie’s plan regarding those who allowed past traumas to go unpunished is not to necessarily “make ’em pay” by committing violence against them, but rather to confront them with their own hypocrisy, immorality, and sin. Cassie is not unlike the prophet Nathan telling King David a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s lamb in 2 Samuel 12. David is caught up in Nathan’s story, decrying the rich man’s actions until the final subversive twist comes from Nathan: “you are the man!” David had essentially raped a woman, Bathsheba, and had her husband killed after it was revealed that Bathsheba is pregnant; a man with power can get away with such actions unpunished. Nathan is confronting the “promising young man” of power on his sinful actions towards Bathsheba. What Cassie accomplishes is similar in that her confrontations with various characters reveal just how depraved they are in their complicity in overlooking societal violence against women, and how patriarchy and misogyny still reign in subtle-yet-powerful ways. She is seeking accountability, striving to make sure destructive men (and those who make excuses for them) be held responsible for their actions. Every act of “vengeance” from Cassie is actually quite passive on her part—she just provides the opportunity for the individuals to either do the right thing, or to continue down their path of iniquity. Moreover, Promising Young Woman itself relies on such convicting confrontations, pulling the rug out from under the audience’s expectations and forcing them to address their own complicity in the use and abuse of women. Some critics have said Promising Young Woman is too exploitative while others critique it for not being exploitative enough. I think that’s the clear sign of a smart, interesting film—it doesn’t fit into simple generic molds of understanding, and thus forces audiences to wrestle with what they’ve just witnessed.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9620292/