Almost every year, a movie comes along that—for better or for worse—feels completely fresh, bold, and unpredictable. “Promising Young Woman,” the debut feature film from writer/director Emerald Fennell, is that movie for 2020. A timely and provocative revenge thriller that serves as a scathing indictment of a misogynistic society that protects abusers, “Promising Young Woman” is a film that puts the viewer under its spell immediately, thanks to its tense and enraging story, a masterful use of costumes, soundtrack, sets, and cinematography, and a fabulous lead performance from Carey Mulligan.
Mulligan plays Cassandra Thomas, a brilliant former med student who had a bright future until a tragic event turned her life upside down. Newly turned 30, Cassie is a college dropout who still lives at home with her parents (played by Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), works at a coffee shop, and doesn’t date or have any friends. But by night, Cassie leads a very different life as she attempts to right a past wrong.
Mulligan portrays Cassie as a fully complicated person whose personality can flip on a dime. She has a dry sense of humor and can be very sweet—her pastel wardrobe during the day gives her an added air of innocence—but it is apparent even before we know her full story that she has experience something very traumatizing. That wardrobe, her bedroom that looks like it belongs to a teenager, and everything else in her life signify a woman whose life has not only stalled in a particular moment in time, but someone who is trying to avoid the complications and dangers that come with adulthood. But otherwise she is cynical and calculating, scarily so if you are the target of her attention. A different wardrobe accentuates this aspect of her personality; when she is carrying out her plots, Cassie often wears either somber business attire or flashy but dark clothing. She is a fascinating character, and even if we haven’t been in the exact same situations as her, the fact that her life has essentially come to a standstill and she struggles to move on makes her relatable. It’s a career best performance for the reliably great Mulligan.
The film also benefits from a solid supporting cast. Brown and Coolidge successfully embody the parents who obviously care but don’t really connect with their daughter, while we see Cassie have a more easygoing relationship with the mother of her best friend in one scene, played by Molly Shannon. Alison Brie nails her part, Bo Burnham is great as a former classmate and potential love interest for Cassie, and it’s fun to see Laverne Cox in the film playing Gail, Cassie’s coworker at the coffee shop. Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, and others play a revolving door of men who try to take advantage of women in compromising situations—until they try to mess with Cassie.
“Promising Young Woman” is also a gorgeous looking and sounding film. The soundtrack is perfectly curated. The sets, like the costumes, are dressed to match the mood of the film. Cassie’s parents’ home, for instance, or the instagrammable coffee shop where she works, are predominantly feminine with delicate patterns and soft colors. A happy scene in a pharmacy is bathed in hot pink neon lights. But the darker sequences are set in dark and dingy places. The cinematography is stellar. Every shot is beautifully composed with Cassie perfectly placed within the frame. The film’s many long shots in particular make Cassie appear alternately fragile or powerful, sometimes both at once. And Fennell does a fantastic job balancing tone (“Promising Young Woman” is first and foremost a black comedy that is more entertaining than upsetting) and creating tension from the start as we try to determine what exactly Cassie’s game is. Even when we think we have it figured out, Fennell throws a curveball that complicates matters.
“Promising Young Woman” is about the abuse that women face every day, from harmless if annoying things like catcalling all the way up to rape, and while Fennell’s script is rather heavy-handed at times, she really hammers home this portrait of a society that not only believes men over women, but actively ensures their success—even if the woman suffers or dies as a result. And the misogyny doesn’t only stem from the male characters. This film demonstrates that even women are complicit in these institutions, dismissing those women who drink too much or dress too provocatively as “they were asking for it” and can easily not understand the gravity of the situation until it effects them directly.
But while the majority of “Promising Young Woman” plays out like a female empowerment thriller, it’s the final act that will be its most divisive aspect. It’s shocking, and satisfying enough that I mostly liked it. But I think I mostly like it because it doesn’t play it safe. Otherwise, the ending doesn’t feel entirely like a victory, and in a way it turns our protagonist into a victim of the very system she is fighting against. But just the fact that it dares to go there is exhilarating—even if it leaves the viewer more disturbed than thrilled.
“Promising Young Woman” will be released in theaters on Christmas Day. Runtime: 113 minutes. Rated R.