Promising Young Woman is a dive into the deep end of cynicism. That is not a pejorative or a negative. It is simply a statement of the reality viewed by its writer/director and the scores of individuals she is speaking for.
A world where painful, life-changing events are passed off as ‘youthful indiscretions’ that a lifetime shouldn’t be judged by, while those most affected are forgotten. A world where there is (almost) no such thing as human decency or the ability to empathize or put others needs above our own. It is a world not worth saving and barely worth existing in.
Which is what Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) does… barely exists. The former medical student with a bright future as a doctor has instead become a barista living with her parents without ambition or drive. By day, anyway.
By night she prowls the highways and byways of bars, clubs and hangouts looking for morally dubious men who pickup inebriated women and gives them a taste of their own medicine. She knows the world for what it is (she thinks) and won’t rest until she gets some measure of revenge for the hurt that has been done her.
At least that’s what she planned until a former classmate (Bo Burnham) does the worst thing imaginable and begins to kindle the old hope of happiness and decency in her heart again.
Phrases like tour de force get tossed around a lot, because they’re easy. They suggest powerful topics and high-level craft without having to explain what is powerful or why it’s so good. It just is. That said, Mulligan is giving the definition of a tour de force performance here, and even more is happening behind the lens with writer-director Emerald Fennell.
Mulligan’s Cassie is a walking, talking angry wound incapable of healing because the events that created her have never been addressed. They’re only ignored, hoping they will scab over enough that something like normal function can be resumed… except that Cassie keeps relentlessly picking at that wound because she must.
Even if all Mulligan did was stride from scene to scene shooting venomous barbs and eviscerating her targets this would probably be her best performance. But beneath all of Cassie’s pain is a desire for love and the ability to forgive and in the few moments those desires are given air, the real work Mulligan is doing shines through.
Rather than a one-note persona, her Cassie is multilayered and complicated with the revelations of layers explaining previous actions and forecasting future ones.
In the world Fennell has made, however, that chance will never come. The psychic damage and lack of empathy for young women who have been the victims of sexual assault is an inescapable gravity well which drags everything down to it.
From the bureaucratic malaise which shrugs at everything and searches for easy boxes to tick to the bros who just want to avoid responsibility for their actions, seemingly small defects of character build and build on one another until they eat everything around them.
It’s not particularly subtle, and more than a few of the major plot developments are extremely easy to foresee which dampens their impact. That’s partly the point. Fennel remains locked on her point from beginning to end and no one is given an easy out, least of all Cassie herself. But it also means her trajectory can be projected.
Fennel’s way with dialogue and a sharp visual eye (and ear for the soundtrack) takes the edge off to a degree, only for Fennel to then turn around and unleash the acid again. Promising Young Woman is an impossible film to enjoy (unless you enjoy having thumbtacks shoved into the roof of your mouth), but it is very, very good.
It’s not going to be for everyone, and yet in its way everyone should see it at least once. It is amazingly easy to watch, but very hard to take.
Promising Young Woman is a yell, a cry, a scream into the dark about the awfulness of humanity and why do we let it go on. That’s not what makes it so difficult to take. It’s the mute silence we get in response that’s the real poison.
Promising Young Woman Review Score: 8.5/10
Focus Features will release Promising Young Woman in theaters on December 25, 2020. The film also stars Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, and Clancy Brown.
Joshua Starnes has been writing about film and the entertainment industry since 2004 and served as the President of the Houston Film Critics Society from 2012 to 2019. In 2015 he became a co-owner/publisher of Red 5 Comics and in 2018 wrote the series “Kulipari: Dreamwalker” for Netflix. In between he continues his lifelong quest to find THE perfect tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich combination.