Film Review: ‘Promising Young Woman’ Unveils a Perfectly Imperfect Heroine Appropriate For Our Times
A young woman, traumatized by a tragic event in her past, seeks out vengeance against those who crossed her path.
Director: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, Clancy Brown
Runtime: 114 minutes
Promising Young Woman promises to tackle issues that are at the very heart of the #MeToo movement: consent, victim-blaming, and a flawed justice system. Many were looking forward to the film, especially with its Sundance and Oscars buzz. I too caught myself reeling with excitement when it was released. There is a complex female lead and a kick-ass pop movie soundtrack, so needless to say, I was sold.
Racking up five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing, Promising Young Woman features the directorial debut of Emerald Fennell, who is best known for her role as Camilla Parker Bowles in Netflix’s The Crown and the head writer of Killing Eve. So, is it worth all the hype?
The film opens and immediately we are hit with pink strobe lights, loud music, and the sight of a bunch of businessmen gyrating in the middle of the dance floor. The camera pans and we see a drunk Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) sprawled out in a booth. The group of men discuss what an easy catch she would be. One of them, Jerry (Adam Brody), gallantly offers to take her home, but smoothly re-directs the cab to his house instead.
When he tries to take advantage of her, Cassie sits up and reveals her sobriety. In a deadpan tone, she asks, “What are you doing?” Jerry looks up in fear and the scene cuts to black. We soon learn that this is Cassie’s dark bedtime ritual — going to clubs, feigning drunkenness, and hunting down opportunistic ‘nice guys’ when they try to take advantage of her.
Haunted by the sexual assault and death of a close friend, Nina, this is her way of righting some wrongs. When she is not living her vigilante double life, Cassie is a 30-something medical-school dropout who still lives with her parents and works at a coffee shop. With the appearance of ex-classmate and love interest Ryan (Bo Burnham), information is revealed about old acquaintances who were involved in the cover-up of Nina’s assault. Slowly but surely, she confronts them and seeks to take them down one by one.
Without a doubt, the film absolutely delivered on acting and music score. Carey Mulligan is brilliant in her role as Cassie. With a cinema-thumping remix of “It’s Raining Men” in the background, nothing could beat that scene of Cassie triumphantly strutting back home, hotdog in hand, satisfied after hunting down nice guy Jerry for the night.
I found myself rooting for Cassie from beginning to end, as she tries to take down the system which failed Nina. Although she might come across as prickly, she is educated, intelligent, and great at unabashedly being herself, fighting for her causes even when it means going against the current. Undoubtedly, she is Fennell’s version of a heroine of our times.
The best part about Cassie is that she is very much like you and me — human. Fennell shows us Cassie’s emotions, departing from previous rape-revenge films such as I Spit on Your Grave (1978), its 2010 remake, and most recently, Revenge (2017). These films often portray their female avengers as emotionless sociopaths that have devoted their life’s work to revenge.
However, in Promising Young Woman, Cassie is torn between getting revenge and getting into a relationship with Ryan. When her plans are carried out, it takes an emotional toll on her. Although she wants to avenge Nina, it is also difficult for her. Fennell makes this move to ground our protagonist, and because of that, she gives us a heroine that we can relate to and — loosely speaking — look up to.
In a similar vein, Fennell can also be commended for never showing us Nina’s rape, and instead focusing on the impacts it has on Cassie and Nina’s family instead. This is a welcome departure from her predecessors, which often contain prolonged, graphic rape scenes, that never truly address the harrowing implications of rape on the victim and the people around them.
Although Fennell does not explore how Cassie processes her trauma, the shift to focus on the aftermath rather than sensationalising the incident itself, in my opinion, marks a step in the right direction for women’s cinema.
That said, there are certain parts of the film that could have been more refined. At one point, Cassie tricks her college friend, Madison (Alison Brie), into thinking that she had been raped, just to get back at her. I personally found it difficult to embrace this because of the underlying moral issues.
Moreover, the film is splashed in a neon-coloured palette and spends an excessive amount of time on Cassie and Ryan’s relatively light-hearted relationship, which seemed rather inconsistent with the film’s heavy and dark subject matter. With long gaps of silence in between dialogues, the film also did not wrap up when it needed to, hence not doing justice to its premise.
Alas, Promising Young Woman is not perfect, and it is not as thrilling or exciting as I wanted it to be. But Fennell’s brilliant direction and Mulligan’s solid performance made the film a true show-stopper. And for anyone who wants to be part of the larger and more difficult conversation, it is definitely a must-watch.
Promising Young Woman is now in theatres islandwide.