PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (Directed by Emerald Lilly Fennell, 113 minutes, USA, 2020)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Director Emerald Lilly Fennell (Killing Eve) merges the arthouse with the grindhouse with this shotgun-wedding of the rape/revenge sub-genre to the #MeToo movement. Promising Young Woman begins by introducing us to Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a beautiful young curmudgeonly barista by day, and by night an avenging angel who lies in wait in bars and clubs pretending to be over-served and incapicated. This trap is meant to ensnare the “nice guys” who attempt to take advantage of her only to have the tables turned when they are confronted about the lack of consent by a completely sober woman. The film uses this ‘prologue’ to lay the groundwork as Emerald then takes us through Cassi’s vengeance in five chapters, a la Kill Bill, while slowly illuminating the inciting incident that put Cassi on this path in the first place.
Cassi’s origin story lurches into motion when one such “nice guy” from her past, Ryan (Bo Burnham), happens into Cassi’s work one day and asks her out. Emerald makes a bold choice with the exposition here in that nothing is said out loud that doesn’t feel natural or absolutely necessary, and because of that it’s really up to the audience to pay close attention. We get that Cassi dropped out of med school seven years ago, because her best friend Nina was raped by one of Ryan’s friends at a party. While the rapist was able to have all charges dismissed, he did flee the country afterwards, leaving Cassi to clean up the pieces. When Cassi discovers the perpetrator is back in the US, and about to be married she goes into full on vengeance-will-be-mine mode.
Fueled by a bubble gum pop soundtrack featuring the likes of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, Promising Young Woman uses whip smart humor to dull the edge of its weighty subject matter. Carey Mulligan disappears in the role of Cassi and is a force to be reckoned with by any and all who cross her path. She is surrounded by comedic heavyweights like Alison Brie, Molly Shanon, and Jennifer Coolidge who coupled with the likes of Clancy Brown and Alfred Molina inhabit this candy colored world where evil lurks, even the brightest corners. The performances are all stellar, and that really helps to elevate a script that’s stuck trafficking in the well-worn trappings of rape/revenge.The film further complicates things by once removing the inciting incident from our protagonist, after all Cassi wasn’t the victim, but that doesn’t make what happened any less tragic.
Still, PYW ultimately left me with more questions than answers. The film wants to be an edgy femistic dive into consent and accountability, but I was left wondering how Cassi is able to go as far as she does without ever going too far. Sure, she can drop out of medical school, dedicate her life to avenging her best friend night after night, but if you are going to be that crazy, you really have to own it. It’s like if Batman just gave every criminal he apprehended a stern talking to, and sent them on their way, invariably to commit more crimes. Street justice is supposed to be morally ambiguous and break a few eggs. That is just what happens when someone is pushed to their limits by extenuating circumstances, they get that moral pass from the audience to do the terrible things that need to be done.
Emerald Lilly Fennell ultimately hesitates when pulling the trigger, and because of that PYW misses the mark. The concept of these kinds of films is to be a sort of wish fulfillment if you will, to see the brutal justice dealt out that’s so very much missing from the real world when it comes to these sorts of crimes. While the performances here still make the film watchable, its flawed logic is what broke the film for me and had me pulling at narrative strings until the fabric of the entire film fell to pieces. I just found it all very puzzling the more thought I gave it – Cassi’s drive, her sacrifices and her eventual fate. When the film finally unleashes Cassi’s lackluster endgame, its bleak resolution is a disservice not only to the character, but the survivors watching, expecting to see something other than the grim reality they face every day.