A grounded and consequential revenge thriller, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN lures you in with its apparent vulnerability but it’s hiding an emotional sucker punch that’s likely to take your breath away.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a medical school dropout still scarred by a terrible event which happened to her best friend at college, lives a deliberately quiet, unremarkable life. Superficially, she lives with her parents and waits tables at a coffee shop to earn a living but by night she frequents local bars and night clubs, posing as a helplessly drunk woman, catfishing predatory and opprtunitic men for whom consent is only ever optional. Her double life is disrupted, though, when Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate comes back into her life and Cassie sees a potential path back to the normal life her parents so desperately want for her. Until, that is, the opportunity presents itself for her to finally take revenge on the ones who destroyed not only her best friend’s life but hers too.
There are shades of THE EQUALIZER, DEATH WISH and even BATMAN in writer/ director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature as Cassie’s life is shaped by the trauma of what happens to her nearest and dearest, honing and sharpening that trauma to a savage point, ready to skewer those who committed the original sin and those who would dare to repeat it. Although we don’t see the innocent women Cassie saves along the way, we can assume that at least some of her victims change their ways – although the film is bleakly careful to point out that leopards really don’t change their spots.
Carey Mulligan brings a multi-layered magnetism to Cassandra, navigating the superficially candy-coloured world she inhabits with tremendous depth of feeling and conviction. There’s an ever-present sadness and seriousness to her, even when seemingly relaxed and with friends. She’s a steel fist in a velvet glove, enduring a similar fate to her mythical namesake, predicting the nature of the men she preys on and being proved right time and again with nobody listening to her.
Bo Burnham impresses too as the charming, nice guy who offers at least a challenge to Cassie’s preconceptions but also provides a route back into her past and to the source of everything that went wrong in her life. With a supporting cast that includes Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge, there’s no shortage of familiar faces but the masterstroke here is how often they’re cast against type, especially the parade of predatory men who find themselves crossing paths with Cassie.
There’s a tonal inconsistency to PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN that effectively reflects the emotional roller-coaster nature of trauma and of having to live with that trauma in a society which not only turns a blind eye to the perpetrators but actively looks to protect them from the consequences of their actions. Cassie is those consequences incarnate although, as is the conventional wisdom, there’s no sign that revenge will bring her the final catharsis she is looking for. Indeed, in an electrifying and audacious finale, Cassie’s arc finds its truth in the old Confucian aphorism about revenge.
A savage indictment of rape culture and the apologist patriarchy which indulges and excuses it, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN sears across the screen and into the consciousness thanks to an unflinching dedication to the story’s darkly logical progression and a sensational performance from Mulligan herself.