A product of the #MeToo movement, the provocative “Promising Young Woman” gives a voice to sexual assault victims. Emerald Fennell’s bold directorial debut and biting screenplay take on rape culture, targeting the patriarchal system and victim blaming that have silenced so many women for so long.
But exactly what the Academy-Award nominated film is trying to say gets muddled in its execution. “Promising Young Woman” tries to be both a rape revenge thriller and romantic comedy at the same time. However, its wildly clashing tones offer conflicting messages. The dark comedy jumpstarts a crucial conversation about rape, injustice and the potential for healing before its gut punch of an ending gives way to an unfulfilling resolution.
A relentless Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a medical school dropout turned barista turned avenging angel. After pouring coffee all day, Cassie dresses up and pretends to be drunk at local bars at night, allowing “nice guys” to take her home – before turning the tables on her would-be attackers.
But Cassie’s mission becomes more personal when she encounters a blast from her past, triggering a previous trauma. From there, Cassie embarks on a path of vengeance against those complicit in a flawed system of shielding the accused over the accuser.
First, let’s talk about “Promising Young Woman” as a rape revenge thriller. The film exposes the power imbalance in attempted rape and rape cases. When Cassie nearly passes out at the bar, it’s always the so-called “nice guys” who rescue her, but who ultimately reveal ulterior motives. In the movie’s universe, there is no such thing as a “nice guy.” Excuses such as “we were just kids” don’t cut it, either. What makes a revenge fantasy satisfying is seeing the protagonist get the upper hand and dole out the deserved punishment. At first, “Promising Young Woman” delivers as Cassie takes control of each situation, and the audience learns to root for her.
Mulligan shines as our pink-wearing, gum-chewing antihero. Decked in flower-printed dresses and rainbow highlights, Mulligan transforms herself into a weapon of femininity as Cassie metes out her revenge. The best actress nominee applies an understated approach to the role, exercising restraint as she allows Cassie’s anger and hurt to spread across her face. She can crack a joke just as easily as she can spit out a threat.
But the revenge aspect grows more complex as Cassie’s mission evolves. The trauma driving her actions concerns a horrific wrong done not to her, but to a loved one. As Cassie seeks revenge on those who played a role in the miscarriage of justice, her actions become hypocritical.
In one instance, Cassie ropes a naïve young girl into her plan. In another, she gaslights a female character into believing she was sexually assaulted. The chilling lengths Cassie is willing to go cross into cruelty for a character aiming to elicit sympathy and understanding. Though our protagonist is trying to prove a point, two wrongs don’t make a right.
The film suffers from tonal whiplash as it struggles to balance its dark and heavy themes with its light and comedic bits. We now enter the rom com part of the film. When Cassie takes a break from her vengeance-seeking, she develops a romance with awkward pediatrician Ryan (Bo Burnham). The two share a nice, easygoing chemistry that’s enjoyable to watch. There’s a fun scene between the pair in a drugstore as the two belt out Paris Hilton’s pop song “Stars Go Blind.” As Cassie lets her walls down, so does the audience as the film lulls us into a peaceful submission. But the film jerks us back out of it with its polarizing ending.
The ending. This is the part that has weighed heavily on me, and I’m still not sure what to think about it. The film takes a hard turn as Fennell subverts expectations, pulling the rug out from under the audience. There’s a nearly three-minute, violent scene that is incredibly hard to watch, meant to invoke another crime. But ultimately, it feels as if it’s done more for shock value.
The film concludes its journey of revenge not with a bang, but with a whimper. The ending conveys a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that nearly derails the conversation about sexual assault the film is trying to start.
“Promising Young Woman” has a lot to say about rape culture and the flawed justice system. Fennell’s charged directorial debut offers some pointed insights during the #MeToo era. But where the film succeeds in giving victims a voice, it falters in providing a catharsis. Even though I enjoyed watching most of the film, I’m still not sure what it was trying to achieve.
Mulligan’s nominated performance lifts the film. But its inconsistent tones and mixed messaging make it a head-scratching inclusion for best picture. Despite its flawed execution, “Promising Young Woman” calls on our society to change how we address rape and sexual assault.
3.5 out of 5 stars
I don’t know that I’m the one who can provide the best review and perspective of “Promising Young Woman.” I’ve known a lot of great women, heard their stories and learned a lot from them. However, a woman’s perspective is much more valuable for a film that centers on rape, the trauma that comes with it and trying to gain an edge in a male-dominated world. “Promising Young Woman” does bring those issues and conversations to the forefront, and that may be the best result of this film. Regardless of my thoughts about the movie, the world needs more films like this written and directed by and starring women.
I cheered and laughed during the dark comedy. It also disturbed me. While its scenes proved emotionally effective, “Promising Young Woman” never established what kind of movie it wanted to be. I had no idea how to feel when it ended. I still don’t entirely know.
I greatly enjoy the revenge plot in films. No matter how often those movies hit theaters, I’m on board. I know what I’m getting. I know the hero or anti-hero will give the villain or villains what they deserve in the end of the film, and I usually find it to be a satisfying experience. We can take our anger and frustration and release into those films and exit the theater feeling better because good triumphed over evil. “Promising Young Woman” establishes itself as that kind of film with its opening act. We don’t know why Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is seeking vengeance, but it’s pretty easy to figure out. The colors and music choices add to the flash of the typical revenge flick. She’s essentially John Wick who uses her head instead of weapons and martial arts. Watching evil men get what they deserve would have been a satisfying watch.
However, the film makes uneven transitions to very serious scenes with devastating music that throw the movie out of whack. One sequence that stood out was when Cassie visits a lawyer (Alfred Molina). It’s very quick, but very emotional. It felt like it came from a different movie.
Then, the film tries to become a romantic comedy, which would have worked with the serious tone of the movie. However, that combined with the flash of the vengeance scenes and gut-wrenching sequences proves too much. The audience can’t establish how it is supposed to feel.
Dark comedy works when the film establishes the correct balance between humor and drama. The movie I always come back to that accomplishes the balance perfectly is 2015’s “The Big Short.” The film that centers on the housing crisis brings the audience in with humor and a success story of the people who shorted the banks and made millions, even billions, of dollars. However, the film also allows us to see the devastation the crisis caused and the characters introduced to the audience understand that and see and reveal the corruption behind it. It’s an incredibly enjoyable, yet effective film.
“Promising Young Woman” doesn’t produce that cohesiveness, and the film’s potential to be great goes down the drain because of it.
Where I really thought it would go was the direction of a “Kill Bill” film, which again works perfectly for what it’s trying to accomplish. It’s a fun action film about a person who has a really good reason to seek revenge.
“Promising Young Woman” is mostly a flashy revenge film. It creates an unrealistic world where all men are evil and most of the women, too. That’s not to say that men don’t act the way they do in this film, because they do. It just establishes this evil versus the anti-hero narrative that the audience sees in revenge films. Emotionally, that’s the tone I followed throughout the movie. It paid off for me in the end, because “Promising Young Woman” bookends its film with that tone. The problem is there are greater ideas introduced here, more powerful ideas, more effective ideas. I would have liked to have seen the movie that takes its serious tone and combines it with its romantic comedy elements. That’s the film that works best with the ideas introduced — a film grounded in reality.
Acclaimed actor Mulligan gives one of the greatest performances of her career, as she has to shift among the film’s three tones. She nails every scene as the audience sees Cassie’s pain and strength in her face and body language. She also thrives as the anti-hero the audience can root for. She also transforms beautifully from acting drunk into a fierce woman assuming control. Mulligan also develops a soft side with love interest Bo Burnham, who plays Ryan. Burnham is also excellent as their chemistry boosts the film.
There are some great sequences that all work within their separate tones. The revenge scenes work with their flash, the emotional scenes prove powerful and disturbing, the romantic comedy scenes make me want to see a film in the genre starring Mulligan and Burnham. However, they just don’t gel well enough to make the film great.
“Promising Young Woman” has strong pieces, including strong leading and supporting performances from Mulligan and Burnham, but tonal issues leave me wondering why this film is in the race for best picture. I’d love to see writer/director Emerald Fennell take a shot at another film. I enjoy her writing for “Killing Eve,” and there’s a lot great in this film. However, the film never established a singular focus. It takes on very important topics such as rape and women trying to attain their power in a male-dominated world. It just didn’t know the right way to achieve its purpose. Good or bad, it did continue the conversations we need to have to make this world a better place.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Rebecca Kivak and Joe Baress write about movies for Take 2 blog. Together, they review current flicks and offer their insights into the latest movie news. Rebecca is a copy editor and page designer at The Times-Tribune. She started her career with Times-Shamrock Newspapers in 2005 and has won several professional journalism awards for page design and headline writing. She also covers NASCAR races from Pocono Raceway. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5126; @TTRebeccaKivak