2020 | R | starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Allison Brie, Clancy Brown, Adam Brody, Samuel Richardson | written & directed by Emerald Fennell | 1 hr 53 mins |
Writer on the terrific Killing Eve and actor playing Camilla Parker Bowles on The Crown, multi-talented Emerald Fennell writes and directs one of the most commanding, surprising and cinema-literate first films I’ve seen in a while with Promising Young Woman. It’s also next to impossible to talk about, best viewed going in completely cold as it unravels one reveal after another from it’s agonizingly protracted opening set piece right up until the final satisfying exclamation point. While typically studios require a writer show they know the storytelling rules before breaking them, Fennell does both in one breath packed inside this movie. It’s one that doesn’t just surprise the audience, but aggressively jerks us around.
How best to talk about Promising Young Woman without giving away a plot that’s very foundation unfolds like a mystery? A movie where what our heroine is doing and why she’s doing it is a rubber band that Fennell stretches as far and long as she possibly can before releasing it. I was reminded of Brit Marling’s opinion piece in the New York Times in February of 2020, “I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead”, in which the writer/actress decries the trope of the Strong Woman as more often than not being shown as interchangeable with a male action hero. Whether it’s Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow or Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt, Hollywood mimics equality by having women fighting with the same level of combat adeptness as a man. For the record, we all love watching those movies, but Marling’s point was that a female character can also be strong, fight and save the day with feminine qualities as well. What does this look like? She did exactly that with her heroine in The OA – a hero who empathizes, loves and fights in a way that isn’t interchangeable with the harder edges a male character would have.
That’s what Fennell is doing with Promising Young Woman, a full-length feminist statement rape-revenge movie through the lens of how a woman would exact such a revenge. Instead of the characters of The Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave or the more recent Revenge who deliver bloody, blunt vengeance eye for an eye, our hero, Cassandra Johnson (Carey Mulligan, Oscar-robbed), exacts slow-burn psychological torment, taking apart her enemies piece by piece, shaming them, ruining them, branding them and forcing them to live in terror. And she does it so easily, as Promising Young Woman shows cowardly men backing down left and right at the tiniest bit of push-back.
It’s also complicated, as Cassie slowly gets more unhinged with each encounter, walking up to a hazy moral line where she might even be more appalling than then those who wronged her. It goes after men of many levels, the jerks at the club, the male feminists, the real nice guys, setting up a sweet romance of witty banter between Cassandra and her former med-school classmate Ryan (Bo Burhnam, charming as ever) to play against it. Fennell does a masterful job here of anticipating the tropes, setting up the expectations and using them to pull the rug out from under us. Nothing here is what it seems and any moment of normality is just a set-up for a fall.
Many of the female-empowerment, gender swap movies sit in neutral because they are clouded with anger. Reboots of Ghostbusters, Charlie’s Angels and Sorority Row can’t shift out of this. Promising Young Woman is fueled on it. It is angry – and it’s also smart, stylish, thrilling, incredibly well acted and tightly put together. The way Fennell skillfully sits on some of the shots (one in the third act particularly) and forces us to sit in the awkwardness of the situation is masterful. It’s the only one of these movies that is built out of a real filmmaker’s eye instead of someone pushing an agenda. It’s the only one, built to last.
The films was one-step ahead of me at almost every turn and, quite frankly, my jaw was on the floor in it’s third act. It looks like a teen rom-com and sounds like one turned on it’s head. Fennell knows exactly what she’s tugging at here with each music que: from an opening scene objectifying after-work men in khaki’s pathetically dancing at a club, a late 90s dance montage scene where our cute couple bust out to a Paris Hilton song in a pharmacy, to the coup de grace set piece of the film – a slow creepy, take on Britney Spears’ Toxic where the violin strings sound like the knives of a slasher movie villain being sharpened.
On an indie film technical note, Promising is also a great economically cast movie. Because of the episodic nature of Cassandra’s encounters with potential victims, the movie can afford a host of recognizable names and faces to fill these slots. Adam Brody, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina, Christopher-Mintz Plasse and Molly Shannon all appear at one point or another in one scene on one set. It’s easier to get someone like Alfred Molina if he only has to commit to an afternoon of work. It’s a clever slight of hand and great directing on Fennell’s part.
Promising Young Woman is a unique animal of a film. I have never seen anything quite like it. Ironic but honest, feminist without generalizing, grabbing hot button social issues without lecturing us. It shows, not tells and a lot of what it shows is still left up to us to put together. Carey Mulligan is fantastic in it, grabbing the role by her teeth and making Cassandra a cult character, sure to be a staple of clever Halloween costumes in the future. It’s an incredible movie and one of the best and most bold of 2020.