Nothing about Promising Young Woman is as it seems. The film’s marketing campaign, beginning with its trailer, made it seem like a Tarantino-esque revenge epic – a Kill Bill-style odyssey in which a badass female lead sought revenge on a string of bad guys. Not that that would be a bad thing. But Emerald Fennell’s comedy thriller peels off its own layers to reveal something more complex, more mind-bending, more uncompromising, and – yes – more darkly funny. It’s a deft balancing act, one worthy of the Best Picture trophy at this year’s Oscars.
The promising young woman at the centre of the film is Carey Mulligan’s Cassie Thomas, a 30-year-old medical school dropout who works at a coffee shop by day and hunts predatory creeps at night. Except her hunting isn’t what it seems, either. While Cassie crosses off her “victims” in a notebook, she never physically attacks the men, or threatens them in any way. Based on their reactions, what she does is much more terrifying for them: she pretends to be too drunk to consent to anything, waits for them to bring her back to their homes, and just as they start sexually assaulting her, she sobers up. She has been sober from the beginning, of course, but suddenly, she starts acting like it – like a woman in full possession of her means.
There is something so cutting, so deeply revealing, in the sheer terror that overtakes Cassie’s male companions when her behaviour changes. You’d think she’d just pulled a knife on them, or a gun. But no: she is simply someone on whom they no longer have such a huge physical or mental advantage. She is someone who knows what they’re doing, and calls them out on it. And it rattles them.
Because Promising Young Woman relishes in its dark undertones – it is, after all, a comedy thriller – it makes sense to go into it expecting Cassie to do something truly terrible. You think she’s going to harm at least one person, and because this is a revenge flick, you’re also prepared to forgive her for it. But the film nips that expectation in the bud one scene after the other. Stay with it, and you’ll see that Cassie, even in a world so flawed and so twisted, never physically hurts anyone.
The reason for Cassie’s actions is clearly explained: her best friend Nina (to whom the title also applies) was raped by a classmate and died by suicide. The perpetrator, of course, is still free and living his best life – in fact, he’s about to get married. This storyline devolves into two plot twists, the kind that you don’t see coming but make complete sense in hindsight, which is exactly what you want from a plot twist. Fennell’s writing is clever and honest. She trusts her viewers and takes the film into unexpected forays, always landing back on her feet.
Mulligan carries the film throughout its most biting moments as well as its most vulnerable ones. Her anger is believable, her darkness runs deep, and her humour – oh, her humour. It’s the movie’s lodestar, and the perfect vehicle for Cassie’s (entirely justified) disappointment at the men around her. “It’s every guy’s worst nightmare, getting accused like that,” one of them moans. Without missing a beat, Cassie shoots back: “Can you guess what a woman’s worst nightmare is?” Mulligan delivers the line with the perfect mix of disdain and dismay, allowing the line to fully shine.
The film makes powerful use of aesthetics. Pastels are Cassie’s true colours; she wears dark, business-like suits when on a revenge mission. Straightforward enough, but the duality works. Fennell’s camera work shows the full range of its promise from the movie’s opening sequence: Cassie is at a bar, surrounded by men dancing (badly) in ill-fitting chinos, bad button-down shirts, and boring ties. Rarely do you see (straight, white) male bodies shot through such a bleakly realistic lens. If you’ve ever had to exist in a world that places unfairly high expectations on how you present yourself, from your sartorial choices to your grooming habits, then those ill-fitting chinos will work as a welcome illustration of this injustice. Those ill-fitting chinos will make you feel seen and understood. That is an Oscar-worthy achievement in itself.
There is something uncompromisingly dark at the heart of Promising Young Woman. That darkness could have devolved into cynicism, losing some of its meaning along the way. But far from torpedoing the film, it gives it its strength. We are with Cassie, but Cassie is alone in her quest for justice. She’s alone like anyone who has tried to fight a system as an individual can be alone.
Promising Young Woman tells a complicated, layered story with a bright clarity. It’s a product of its time, but the mistreatment it depicts is a tale as old as time. It’s a righteously angry, smart film that never shies away from its own dark corners, but instead mines them for more power.