Spoilers will call you a cab.
I think cringe and being uncomfortable are not the same thing. Cringe is the equivalent of a jumpscare, a gross or shocking shot that causes you to recoil. But being uncomfortable is more subtle and effective as slow burn horror – a realization that something is going to progressively get worse. This film is definitely aiming more for the latter. To say that this film can be triggering is selling it short. This movie is divisive and subversive as hell. Make damn sure you’re in a good place mentally before you start. It’s not going to be ok.
Promising Young Woman (2020) was written and directed by Emerald Fennell. When we first meet Cassie (Carey Mulligan), she’s a young woman drunk at a nightclub. As we will learn before the night ends, she’s a woman with a mission. Revenge genre films are usually predictable but this one has enough twists to make your head spin. Cassie is on a streak to make men face their worst reality: that a great many number of them are very capable to do their worst to a woman on her most vulnerable state. She does this because she lost her best friend Nina who was raped by someone on her old friends’ circle. She does this because Nina is dead and the man who raped her has his life and his friends without having faced any consequences.
Cassie dropped out of med school and isolate herself, losing any social connections and living with her parents. She works a low paying job at a coffee shop run by her friendly boss Gail (Laverne Cox). She has a very dry and sarcastic wit so when former med school mate Ryan (Bo Burnham) makes an awkward and clumsy failed attempt at hitting on her, Cassie is having none of it. And yet, Ryan insists. The chance of a regular normal life seems to appear in front of Cassie and yet we know things are not going to be neither easy nor simple.
That’s as far as I’m willing to reveal. This is a very subversive film and one that strongly condemns the small loopholes in society that allow sexual predators to escape enduring consequences while leaving the victims to suffer their fate forever. However, it’s also one that shows the real toll that a life of obsession for revenge costs. Cassie’s vengeance crusade is neither heroic nor ideal, she’s willing to hurt and be hurt just to make entitled misogynists regret their life choices – it’s an impulse that hungers for justice but it’s also ultimately destructive.
Cassie doesn’t only direct her anger towards the entitled and privileged male sexual predator. She’s also merciless with women who go with the status quo and allow these attitudes to fester. The dark and sarcastic shades of humour have very sharp teeth. This is basically subtle shock cinema with a very elegant edge, but also one that doesn’t even excuse Cassie herself. It’s not that she doesn’t deserve to be happy, it’s that her only focus is to create misery even at the expense of her own life. This revenge thriller subverts a lot of things, including romantic comedy. Cassie is not perfect. She doubts, she acts on impulse, she’s very close to getting in serious trouble one way or the other.
The visuals are intentionally misleading. Bright colors and pop music easily might fool you about the kind of movie you are watching. This could almost be a horror film, and in some ways it feels as one. It could also be a comedy, but one that silences your last laugh with uncomfortable silence. There’s no denying the entire movie hinges on Mulligan’s excruciatingly cute and hostile portrayal of Cassie. She goes in so far into the character that it’s really impossible to compare her to other roles in which she plays up her innocence. She really should get at least a nomination for this one, but I fear this role is so far fetched from anything else people have seen her in that she’s unrecognizable. She definitely is at the top of her game here.
The movie sets out to put you in the hot seat. You are not rooting for any of the pitiful marks of Cassie’s wrath. You are hoping she gets away with it and at the same time secretly wish for a traditional happy ending, but if you’re a jaded moviegoer that have seen a revenge movie or two you can already tell that she’s not riding out into the sunset with smiles and rainbows. This will get dark because that’s the path she’s set on, and twist after twist will distract you long enough to be caught by surprise when the ending comes. It is also a divisive ending, and against any hopes of the audience is it is not a people pleaser.
Extremely recommended for fans of subversive twists and pitch dark humour, as well as film aficionados of genre films and revenge stories. Strongly not recommended for trauma survivors. I have to include a huge red flag because this film does deal with strong themes of trauma, sexual abuse and rape. It is not visually depicted, but it is strongly implied. The revenge tones are dripping with sarcasm and social critique. The anti-heroine, brilliantly portrayed by Carey Mulligan, is troubled past the point of no return and willing to step over any social norms regardless of who she hurts.
That will do for now.