There is a sly joke in the latter half of Emerald Fennell’s stunning debut Promising Young Woman that references films of the 90’s in which reckless antics by men lead to dire consequences. If films like 1998’s Very Bad Things indulged in toxic masculinity then Fennell’s film takes glee in serving the male ego, and its female enablers, a much-needed comeuppance.
Promising Young Woman does more than simply take aim at problematic men, it exposes the societal structures that cultivate them. Whether it is the academic institutions that conveniently refuse to tarnish the otherwise spotless image of a star male pupil, or the lawyers who use intimidation and other tactics to discredit the character of women, the film shows it is never too late to seek justice once denied.
The avenging angel of Fennell’s deliciously layered tale is Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a young woman who had a promising medical career, but now works at a coffee shop run by Gail (Laverne Cox). What caused this shift in career is not clear at first, but it has left her in a seemingly uninspired rut. At least that is what it looks like to her parents who think it is time for their daughter to finally leave the nest for good. What her folks and others do not realize is that Cassandra could jump start her life if she really wanted to, but she has more important work to do once the sun goes down.
At night Cassandra can be found seemingly wasted at a local night club, barely able to keep her eyes open and stumbling around looking for her phone. Her inebriated state is like blood in the water for sharks seeking easy prey. Fortunately, there are “nice guys” like Jerry (Adam Brody) willing to step up and ensure she gets home safely. However, as he quickly finds out when attempting to take advantage of her, one should never judge a book by its cover. Turning the tables on men like Jerry, it is a Cassandra who reveals herself to be the real hunter.
In observing Cassandra unleashing her special brand of fury on unsuspecting men and women, including those from her past, Promising Young Woman constructs a tale that is equally darkly funny and disturbing. The film effortlessly drifts from biting social commentary to psychological horror to something emotionally resonating. Fennell’s tale may present itself as a tale of revenge, but it is ultimately a story about grief and survivor’s guilt. Utilizing the power of perception to maximum effect, Fennell’s film does an exceptional job of making one feel just as uncomfortable as Cassandra’s victims.
In doing so, the film forces one to reflect on the pain, sense of isolation and humiliation that women often feel after enduring an assault. The sense of powerlessness that their friends and family feel for not being able to intervene. As Cassandra remarks to one of her targets, it “feels different when it is someone you love.”
Regardless of whether one has a personal connection to the subject matter, the film hits a universal nerve. Through its use of well-placed music queues and sharp humour, Fennell’s film captures just how deeply rooted toxic masculinity and rape culture are in the soil of society. With each new sharp turn Promising Young Woman takes, and there are many, the film feels less outlandish and more brutally honest.
It is a testament to Fennell’s filmmaking that the narrative is able to travel in several different directions while still reaching a satisfying destination at the end. The film demands that one places complete faith in both Fennell’s vision and Mulligan’s ability to realize it. While Mulligan has already established herself as one of the premier actresses working today, she reaches new heights here. Repeatedly pulling the rug out from under the viewer, she takes a seemingly off-kilter character and peels away the layers to reveal a complex individual that one can identify with.
Promising Young Woman is one of the more astonishing debuts in recent memory, a film filled with confidence, style and a devilishly intoxicating edge. It is an unflinching ode to all the women, and their loved ones, who have had their lives derailed by those who claim to be “nice guys.”
Promising Young Woman will be available On Demand starting Friday, January 15th