There is a very good chance that “shocking” will be the first and most basic reactionary word to come out a viewer’s dropped jaw after seeing Promising Young Woman, the holy-f—king-shit movie of 2020. If someone isn’t shocked, there’s something wrong with them. If anything, the predicament of self-examination will be which condition of shock they’re carrying as they come down from the buzz of this movie.
Go straight to the thesaurus for this synonym test on shock value. There’s the “appalling,” “heinous,” or “horrifying” branch. The feeling could also be “formidable,” “scandalous,” or “surprising.” Even further, “shameful,” “monstrous,” and “ghastly” could easily sneak in there. Which synonym or synonyms the viewer favors will greatly outline their perspective. The crazy thing about Promising Young Woman is any and all of those variations may apply to the layers of context, conflict, character, and storytelling going on in Emerald Fennell’s indelible feature film directorial debut.
The opening ten minutes of Promising Young Woman were the Killing Eve writer’s elevator pitch to getting this movie made and it’s easy to see why. The movie opens on a trio of brash young male execs, including one played by the familiar sweet face of Adam Brody. They are downing cocktails when they spot an attractive blonde writhing in a drunken stupor on a studded leather couch in a nightclub under the booming music and colored lights. From afar, they use her as the target of their lip-licking lust and gum-flapping anger. Selfish remarks of how she is “practically asking for it” and ventings about how easy it would be to bed her, disregarding any danger the girl puts herself in, narrate their sinful gazes.
As the scene transitions away from the club and escalates into worse possible peril, the mystery veers to ask, and then ultimately reveal, who is really luring who. The woman in the crosshairs of coitus is Cassie Thomas, played by Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan. By day, she is a crass, yet unassuming pastel-wearing barista who still lives with her hopeful parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) at the new age of 30 while working at a sunny coffee shop run by her friend Gail (Laverne Cox of Orange Is the New Black). By night, she is a dolled-up, motherf–king avenging angel out to reverse the predatory circumstances on guys who cross the lines of consent. The drunken floozy act vanishes and she goes on to teach the miscreant lessons they will never forget.
Each mortifying conquest by Cassie becomes another tally in a little journal she keeps. After watching that pitched opening scene and more fateful encounters after that, you can bet every single one of those quarries deserved the pride-punishing comeuppance they received. To see so many marks in her book, one wonders where are the decent men that wouldn’t take advantage of a woman. Could the likable pediatric surgeon and former college classmate Ryan (celebrated comedian and Eighth Grade director Bo Burnham), who survives a charming “meet-wrong” with Cassie at the coffee shop, be one of them, or does her keen edge keep her from finding real affection?
There is a colossal reason for Cassie’s crusade that is revealed in patient and painful layers within Fennell’s brilliant screenplay and Mulligan’s harrowing and sublime performance. It counts as the initiative for a reckoning. The transgressions of a past that derailed her track to becoming a doctor have triggers, details, and eventually names, including the likes of characters played by Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina, and Chris Lowell. Each is a chapter of confrontation in Promising Young Woman’s diabolical quest. Each defines a rotten root of the unforgivable and indefensible mistakes for all of this inevitable revenge.
Carey Mulligan is electrifying in this film. Taking on a near vigilante or sociopath’s mantle, her composure to mete out this justice is downright frightening and wholly convincing when combined with the overwhelming grief carried by her character. Equally so, Mulligan can disarm as easily as she can destroy when such spirit is coaxed, often in her scenes shared with the magnetic Bo Burnham. Calling back to this writer’s review of Far From the Madding Crowd five years ago, “there’s a certain twinkle in the wrinkle of her smile and a sparkle in her eye that is undeniably captivating.” That trait has only grown more powerful with time and now encompasses the ferociousness of Cassie.
Unpunished wrongs are ruinous. Promising Young Woman, with wild amplification, exposes the injustices that have been summarily dismissed too often with he-said/she-said apathy. Listen and believe. There is a broken course of accusations, innocence, guilt, and all of the shaming and nightmares in between. Its existence shows that true deterrents, consequences, and better corrective conduct expectations are not in place or ineffective to deter crimes of sexual assault at a societal level. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. We all know it’s wrong, even if we pretend we don’t. Say something, stop something, or become complicit to devastating events that shatter lives on both sides. That complicity doesn’t have gender bias either, as this thriller boldly includes.
Backed by a banger of a soundtrack selected by music supervisor Susan Jacobs (American Hustle) that throbs with empowering energy and twisted temerity from an all-female lineup, Promising Young Woman is an obstacle course of intense allegorical and real vibes designed to provoke those ranges of shocking reactions spelt out at the start. Fennell’s film is a loud-and-clear and justifiable pushback to the raunch culture that used to normalize distasteful misdeeds. There are dozens of cinematic examples from past generations with premises and scenes exactly like many here in Promising Young Woman that audiences used to laugh at and even champion. Progress and correction are needed and a jarring movie like this one asserts those dire needs.
Don’t feel that way entirely just yet? Check yourself. There is an easy brain exercise to fix that. Picture either the perpetrator or the victim as someone you know or love. If you still cringe to call out gender inequality on this supposedly slippery slope of “every guy’s worst nightmare,” as an unwitting male tries to do in this movie, throw back the mic-dropping retort from Fennell’s script of “Can you guess every woman’s worst nightmare?” That’ll shut ignorance up in a hurry with a riotous cheer.