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Let’s get one thing clear straight from the start: Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is not the film that you think it is. Yes, it’s a revenge story, but not in any existing conventional sense. Yes, it’s a thriller, but with twists that you can’t expect. Yes, it’s a dark comedy, but you don’t know how far it will go for a sinister punchline. I can say with perfect confidence that Promising Young Woman is not the film you think it is because no previous films like it exist, and as it proceeds to blow your mind and drop your jaw as it unfolds, you’ll realize that you are watching something special and game changing from talent that deserves unlimited recognition for what they’ve accomplished.
There is a certain security provided in a movie that trades in homage and tradition, but this is a movie that spikes the rules and keeps its hooks in you by dealing in the unexpected. With a candy-like aesthetic and a penchant for irregular swings between sour and sweet, it’s a rare nail-biter that has a keen ability to slice in a devilishly clever line that inspires a big laugh – and in its third act unfurls a world-rocking ending that will leave you feeling gut punched and dizzy.
When we first meet Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan), she is at a bar and nearly ready to pass out. Or is she? In actuality, what she is doing is baiting a trap that she sets nearly every night: luring douchebags into what seems like a ready-made date rape situation and waiting for the right opportunity to provide said douchebags with what we’ll call a moment of clarity.
Cassie has the time to do this because her life is in a disaffected stall. After dropping out of medical school, she lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown), and works at a local coffee shop for a boss (Laverne Cox) who knows she can be doing better things. But instead she's persistently consumed by the events that led to her to abandoning her promising career path as a doctor. Unable to let go of horrific memories of what happened to her best friend, she pulls the trigger on an expansive revenge plot aimed at all of those she felt were responsible for what happened. What she doesn’t see coming, however, is the sudden appearance of a former classmate named Ryan (Bo Burnham) who manages to completely disarm her, and make her question her plan and her future.
Promising Young Woman’s impressive narrative will keep you guessing right up until the end.
There are moments in Promising Young Woman when you think you know where it’s going – you think you’ve picked up on a subtle detail, a certain line of dialogue stands out in your ear, or you start to recognize a pattern – but what makes the film so special is its ability to perpetually surprise. It isn’t without certain tropes, but more often than not they’re tools used to manipulate expectation and execute cinematic sleight of hand. Every stage of Cassie’s plan implements a base layer of deception that is aimed square at her targets, but Emerald Fennell’s script also stacks multiple layers beneath that tricksy crust that the audience isn’t aware of until the endgame is slapping you across the face while wearing a toothy smile. It’s nimble, surgical, and stunning.
Promising Young Woman is more than just clever; it’s vicious. Movies often portray revenge as bluntly emotional, but this roaring rampage is pointed to an extent that it could cut diamonds, and its pissed off/fed up energy is intoxicating in its righteousness. It’s properly paired with an affecting dose of reality, as it clearly accentuates how Cassie’s anger at the past has torn and clawed away at her ability to live her life, but in our current social climate the riot grrrl scream rings in the ears.
The gorgeous visuals are just as impressive as the script in Promising Young Woman.
Emerald Fennell’s script alone would qualify the movie as one of the most exciting feature filmmaker debuts in years, but she also happens to have a fantastic directorial eye that makes every scene pop. Her collaborations with cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, production designer Michael Perry, and costumer Nancy Steiner have resulted in Promising Young Woman having a bold color palette that strikes you with its intense use of blues and reds that serve to both accentuate and contrast the material in the best ways (furthering its ability to keep cinephiles off-kilter). There’s great ugliness in the story, and great beauty in the aesthetic, and the mix is ultimately brilliant.
Carey Mulligan delivers a career-best performance as Cassie.
Cassie as a protagonist is a rich and complex character that you fall for the moment she reveals she isn’t as intoxicated as she appears in the opening sequence, and it marks the best performance that Carey Mulligan has ever given (which is saying quite a lot when you consider her impressive filmography). The role requires her to be as sharp as she is angry as she is hurt, and the actor crushes every aspect with honesty and deep pathos. It’s an incredible thing to look into her eyes as she is bordering on happiness during her time with Ryan and recognize the hesitance and fear residing there, and that kind of meticulous energy flows throughout her entire turn. There is no weak link in the entire ensemble, which has quite a deep roster, but what Mulligan achieves is unforgettable and mesmerizing.
Promising Young Woman has been building hype ever since it inspired raves during its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and curiosity has only exponentially increased due to 2020-related delays, but it’s now appropriately a Christmas release because it is a phenomenal present for all cinephiles, and more than lives up to all the chatter. It’s the best movie of the year, and one that people will be talking about for many, many years to come.