Promising Young Woman is a revenge thriller at its beating black heart, but it’s also a sly comedy and an off-kilter romance. When all is said and done, you may wonder what, exactly, writer-director Emerald Fennell wanted to say—but you’ll be glad she said it.
The film starts with 29-year-old coffee-slinger Cassie (Carey Mulligan, Drive) dead-drunk in a glitzy nightclub. She’s alone under a flashing disco ball, short-skirted, high-heeled, and easy pickings for the scavengers looking for last-call ladies. We overhear a few guy-friends discussing her inebriated state—the poor girl… a nice guy should see her home and make sure she gets into bed okay. Jerry (Adam Brody, Ready or Not) does just that, and as he’s undressing her, she snaps to sober attention. Needless to say, Jerry is surprised: the drunken damsel is actually an avenging angel. As it turns out, this is Cassie’s favorite pastime. She pretends to be hammered, catches a so-called “nice guy” in the act of date-rape, then gives him hell.
As Promising Young Woman continues, we get the backstory. Cassie was in medical school, but she dropped out to take care of her traumatized best friend, Nina, following a brutal gang-assault in which the attackers went unpunished. Nina later committed suicide, leaving Cassie in pieces and angry at the world. Her doctor-dreams dashed, she now works as a barista and lives with her parents. The only thing that keeps her going is revenge, until one day, a former classmate, now a pediatrician, walks into the coffee shop. Ryan (Bo Burnham, The Big Sick) is one of the few friendly faces from the past, and they rekindle their friendship, which blossoms into romance. Will this turn of events cool Cassie’s broiling inner rage? Nope!
Cassie’s days are pink, fluffy, bright, and bubbly between her mom’s home décor and the coffee shop’s perky style. Her nights are shadowy and fraught with danger. After all, she goes on her missions alone and (presumably) unarmed. No one knows what she’s up to; the only witness is her journal, in which she keeps a tally of her conquests. Like the visuals, the music dances between notes of glee and gloom—there’s an eerie, slowed-down version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” in contrast to The Spice Girls’ kitschy ballad, “2 Become 1.”
This film encompasses many different genres and moods, which is great for Mulligan to shine. She is the star, is in nearly every scene, and she carries the action admirably. Her performance is award-worthy. But the story itself is a bit too scattered to fall for fully. While it’s not entirely a treatise on terrible men—the women, including Cassie, are almost as awful—it doesn’t seem to be sure what it wants to say. That life is a bitch, and then you die? Revenge on strangers is cool? It’s all hopeless, and everybody sucks? Not that every film has to have a message on par with Western Union, but I think an upshot is important with this subject matter. The ending is bold, and I dug it, but I would have liked it even more if Promising Young Woman had either been a lot darker or much funnier. As it was, I felt vaguely unsatisfied as the credits rolled.
Having said that, I do appreciate Fennell’s uncompromising point-of-view and the obvious free-reign she was given—the flick feels auteur-made, which is rare these days. Despite a few blind curves, Promising Young Woman is absorbing, entertaining, and unique.