Every once in a while, a film comes along that blows the doors clear off the building. It could be a dazzling technical accomplishment that catches the eye and betwixt the soul. It could be a bravura acting setpiece that features one performer Going For It, in ways either good or bad. Or it could be a scathing indictment of a system (or The System), the way the great directors of the 30s and 70s once did. Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is one of those films, but it doesn’t just settle for one of those criteria. Fennell’s scathing debut satire checks off all the boxes, delivering a masterfully staged production centered around an all-time great Carey Mulligan performance that just won’t rest until the entire system is burned to the motherf*cking ground. In short: it’s a marvel.
Seven years ago, Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Mulligan) was destined for greatness. She was top of her class in med school, she was renowned for her wit and charisma, and above all, she was best friends with the most popular girl in school, and her best friend since kindergarten, Nina Fisher. But when something terrible happens, Cassie’s life is completely thrown off-course. Today, Cassie has no discernible drive or passion – at thirty, she still lives at home with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and works a dead-end job in a coffee shop. She does, however, have one strange hobby: every weekend, she goes out to a random bar in her Ohio hometown, pretends to be drunk, and waits for a “nice guy” to try to take her home – you know, for her protection. Her trap is sprung when the guy tries to take advantage of her supposed inebriated state – and that’s when the trap is sprung. Cassie’s life continues this pattern – that is, until, a handsome former classmate of hers (Bo Burnham) begins to court her, and casually brings the past back to the present. Faced with the aftermath of pain, grief, and anger, Cassie launches her ultimate master plan: a series of horrific bouts of revenge against everyone involved in The Incident, whether tangentially or directly, as she herself travels down a path from which there is no return.
Everything great in Promising Young Woman’s themes can be found in its opening prologue. After watching a bunch of gyrating, thrusting men in a club, the camera cuts in on a conversation between three men discussing workplace drama and the women in the bar. Two of the men speak of women in demeaning terms, while one man, Jerry constantly attempts to shut his sexist friends down. It is then that Cassie and her plan enter the picture, and where the film’s message is made abundantly clear. While a lazier film would choose one of the overt sexists to be the pig (and one later has his own chance to prove himself a total scumbag), Cassie’s would-be assaulter and eventual “victim” is none other than Jerry, who started out with the noblest of intentions only to immediately sell out his morals for a chance at an “easy lay.” Promising Young Woman isn’t just a moral platitude declaring “Some dudes are assh*les, but we nice guys are here to save the day, ladies. Now f*ck us as a thank you.” Promising Young Woman is holding a nasty, yet completely honest, mirror up to society and revealing the dark side of life. It’s condemning the men who use women, as well as the men who refuse to stand up to such amorality in the first place.
Fennell’s daring script and electrifying direction put the whole damn system on trial, finding clever, incisive ways to take down not just the toxic “nice guy” trope, but the rich f*ckboys who get away with things because of money and clout, the justice system that’s willing to aid them in the process, the women who are willing to look the other way when their friends are in danger to avoid shaking the status quo and beyond. Fennell even uses a throwaway joke to target the women who make sexualized makeup tutorials aimed at young girls, warping their self-esteem and understanding of their own autonomy (Fennell herself plays the woman in the video, to great effect). Throughout these scenes, the men – whether a random “nice guy” lured into Cassie’s web or a direct connection to The Incident involving Cassie’s friend Nina, utilize popular phrases that hearken to Steubenville, Brock Turner, and beyond without ever feeling obvious or exploitative – there’s a constant refrain throughout the film of “I’m super drunk, I didn’t know what I was doing,” and the most infuriating “We were just kids! We didn’t know any better!” despite being 23 at the time. Promising Young Woman’s message is clear: You Can Never Trust Anyone, and when the system is this broken, the eventual outcome can only be nightmarish and catastrophic.
However, despite the spectacular prologue and the intentionally misleading marketing campaign, Cassie’s black widow routine really only makes up the film’s first act. The bulk of the film, and the meatiest material to chew on/be horrified by/cheer for is the film’s main arc, involving Cassie’s direct revenge on the people she feels are responsible for what happened to her friend. In a stroke of shocking, nauseating brilliance, Cassie gets her revenge by utilizing scenarios and thought processes against her victims, using the very system they’ve been protected by against them. This results in some jaw-dropping sequences that are perfectly acted and executed – often with balletic precision – yet remain unshakeable in their gnarly detail. It’s a massive tonal shift, and reflects the film’s true nature as a satire. Between Parasite and Jojo Rabbit, I’ve written a lot in recent months about the art of satire, and I will say it again: satire works best when it is funny until it’s not. And that is the case with Promising Young Woman. Fennell laces each joke with a terrifying underlying meaning, and every moment of nauseating dread is laced with a tinge of irony. This is the work of a master writer, and stands tall as one of the better acts of satire in recent memory.
Of course, the reason the satire works is because, as neat as this film may be, Fennell provides us no easy answers about Cassie’s actions and behavior. She’s never painted as wholeheartedly “right” – indeed, some of the actions towards the people of debatable connection to The Incident are downright heinous (albeit absolutely thought provoking). But that’s just it: the film, and Cassie herself, don’t want you to root for her. Cassie is not an avenging angel the way the film might want you to expect. Cassie is a survivor who technically didn’t survive. This is a woman who lost everything she cared about, and died with her best friend, at least metaphorically. She’s so broken, and so narrowly focused, she doesn’t even remember her own birthday. The darkness of her past and her bleakness for the future sets off an unshakeable journey of destruction for all involved. And if she’s going down, she’s bringing the whole f*cking system down with her.
It’s what makes two moments in particular so poignant, as they are the only moments that work outside the devastating realm that most of this film reside in. While I can’t talk about one of the moments – a sequence of pure, melancholically gleeful catharsis – without spoiling the film’s ending, the first moment is the one sequence that not only breaks the film’s cycle of revenge, but also casts the entire mission in a grey cloud of moral ambiguity. It’s a sequence of forgiveness, remorse, and regret, which breaks the film’s cycle of toxic men and shows that repentance is possible, albeit rare. It’s a moment that could feel fake or forced in a lesser film, but works thanks to the performances by Mulligan and the great Alfred Molina. Promising Young Woman understands that these issues come with no easy answers, and simply wants to take us on a journey of emotion: anger, pain, remorse, and vengeance.
Of course, a major reason we’re willing to go along on this nasty-dark voyage is because Fennell’s filmmaking is so deliciously perfect. Her screenwriting abilities are unparalleled – not only has she crafted a perfectly-structured story that pays off every detail without providing obvious solutions or opinions, but she manages to create realistic dialogue that can be both biting and honest. This film knows exactly how douchebag men talk, and portrays their conversations honestly, and yet isn’t afraid to go after low-hanging (yet oddly under-critiqued) fruit like fedora-wearers, “Hello M’lady” speakers, and that ultimate monster who won’t shut up about his novel while condescendingly asking “Have you ever read Consider The Lobster?” The writing is only matched by Fennell’s direction, which brilliantly utilizes the exploitation genre not as a gimmick, but as commentary. BY utilizing the constructs of the genre – a neon pink font, a synth, 80s-esque score, gaudy chapter declarations, and beyond – Fennell instead subverts genre expectations, and avoids giving audiences the easy out they expect and crave. The film alludes to a revenge flick and instead offers a haunting character study, creating something deeper out of what could have been lip service. It’s perhaps the reason she so often pays homage to Night of the Hunter, a similar faux-exploitation film that similarly explores how male sociopaths who target women can manipulate the system to get away with it.
Fennell’s production team equally steps up their own game to match her level, whether it’s the way Benjamin Kračun plays with light and color to amplify each scene (including a terrific beatdown of a sexist assh*le’s car) or the way Frédéric Thoraval perfectly cuts this film to work with the music, the camera work, and the acting. And speaking of the music, kudos to Fennell and Anthony Willis for orchestrating not only one of the year’s most inspired scores (Fennell’s Hitchcockian thriller deserves a Herrmann-esque symphony of tension and terror), but one of the year’s best soundtracks too. Oftentimes tinkered with to land like a booming, horror-esque thud on the viewer, Fennell’s has arranged one of the best compilation soundtracks in modern history. There’s original songs by Charli XCX, and nightmarish covers of “It’s Raining Men.” One sequence turns Paris Hilton’s campy early-aughts hit “Stars Are Blind” into a romantic, sexy, and cute moment inside a pharmacy, while “Toxic” becomes the film’s unofficial anthem due to a chopped-and-screwed strings cover during the climax. And I cannot stress enough how perfect the ending is, perfectly edited and performed to a masterfully used “Angel of the Morning.” Does the third act last about four minutes too long, and stifle the film’s potency? A bit – it forces itself into a corner that creates a loss of steam due to the very nature of its “twist.” But one misstep over the course of two hours is nothing to sneeze at – especially when the rest is so damn good.
In terms of the acting in this film, the buck fully stops with Carey Mulligan. If Mulligan were even 1% less the caliber of performer she is, this film doesn’t work. I’ve been a staunch supporter of Mulligan since An Education over a decade ago, so you can believe me when I say the following: she is unequivocally f*cking phenomenal in this film, and it is her best performance to date. Mulligan takes Cassie, an otherwise-impossible to cast figure, and makes her not only iconic, but real. She brings this messy, fiery, powerful force of nature to life and makes her feel like a part of the real world, mainly thanks to her face. Mulligan is capable of delivering an array of emotions in a single expression, often shifting moods and thoughts over the course of the scene. During a single conversation, Mulligan can display pain, anger, remorse, passion, and destruction, cluing in the audience solely with her eyes. It’s truly astonishing how quickly she can change the course of a scene, whether she’s shifting from stoic to angry, cold to loving, or, more obviously, fake drunk and fake nice to terrifying at the drop of a pin. This is a tremendous performance, cool and collected while simultaneously wildly out of control in understandable, justifiable ways. And the film simply wouldn’t work without her.
Of course, while Mulligan’s performance is the film’s ultimate weapon, she doesn’t have to pull it off alone. Each member of this ensemble brings their own flavor to the party, often in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking. Bo Burnham has never been known as an actor, instead receiving acclaim for his stand-up and writing abilities (not to mention his direction of 2018’s Eighth Grade). His performance here as Ryan creates a strange, yet compelling comparison to Mulligan, creating instant chemistry through his seemingly-altruistic exterior and an ability to deliver a sexy punchline thanks to years of honed timing. Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge are a great pair of movie parents, giving a unique dichotomy to their roles, from Brown’s well-meaning dadlike exterior to Coolidge’s against-type average mother who just wants her lost daughter back. Laverne Cox’s role really amounts to nothing more than a funny friend, but who cares, because Cox is so enjoyable and funny in this role. Alfred Molina and a cameo from Molly Shannon bring a surprisingly painful pathos to the production, giving two of the film’s best performances and bringing the comedy to a screeching halt with recollections of real-world repercussions, while Alison Brie and Connie Britton play perfectly terrified victims of Cassie’s revenge. Brie in particular stands out as Madison, a spoiled rich lady who backstabbed her best friend for clout. This is a very specific type of woman, one who will be recognizable to most viewers, and Brie plays it remarkably well.
And finally, while I don’t want to make them the focus, I do have to mention the murderers row of Nice Guy actors, who not only execute their roles to sleazy perfection, but demonstrate Fennell’s unique talent for casting. Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, Max Greenfield, and especially Chris Lowell are effortlessly creepy in their performances, mixing humor, horror, and realism into recognizable parodies of real-life scumminess. But the very gimmick of their casting is a coup unto itself. Fennell has chosen five actors famous for playing “Nice Guys” who got passes based on their charmingness without any real analysis of the plot. By having Seth Cohen, McLovin, Richard Splett, Schmidt, and Piz playing variations on their iconic roles, now with sinister subtext and added nuance, it not only adds a layer to the film – it redirects the course of the very narrative in which their characters were once a part. It’s brilliant casting and acting, and I applaud everyone involved with the decision.
Promising Young Woman burrows under your skin and refuses to emerge. It’s a film you’ll be thinking about for days to come, and your love for it will only grow – which is an accomplishment, considering how much you’ll love it on first viewing. It’s a film that alludes to the best, like Hitchcock, Fatal Attraction, Laughton, and a lazier critic could compare it (understandably so) to the acting of last year’s Joker, the writing of last year’s Parasite, or the thematic heft of 1991’s Thelma and Louise. But at the end of the day, this film is utterly Fennell. It is uniquely original, delivering a great film whose reputation will only grow with time. And God, am I so grateful it exists.
Promising Young Woman is now playing in theaters, and will be released on VOD in the next few weeks. The Sacred Wall highly advises you utilize the latter platform, no matter how great the film may be