‘Promising Young Woman’: Sundance’s Divisive #MeToo Revenge Film
Carey Mulligan stars in a revenge-thriller from the showrunner of “Killing Eve,” which manages to be a violent takedown of rape culture and a pitch-dark rom-com all at once.
There are images in Promising Young Woman that sear themselves into your psyche, they’re so clever and cheeky and confrontational and fucking badass.
Carey Mulligan walking down the street at dawn, her makeup smeared, clothes disheveled, messy bun akimbo, and barefoot, eating a hot dog with ketchup dripping down her forearm like a trail of blood.
Carey Mulligan in a sexy nurse outfit, a rainbow-colored wig framing a make-up palette that could be seen from space, and an intensity in her eyes somehow both laser-focused and deranged as she straddles her next target—finally, a female Joker moment.
Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in a pharmacy, grinning at each other on a puppy-love high as they dance up and down the aisles lip-synching to, yes, Paris Hilton’s pop song “Stars Are Blind.”
Carey Mulligan serenely smiling. Carey Mulligan with a man’s neck in a death grip. Carey Mulligan breaking the fourth wall, piercing through the camera with a gaze that borders on demonic.
Promising Young Woman, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, both fractures a woman’s psyche and presents one of the most fully-realized portraits yet of a person exhausted, exasperated, wounded, and angered by a culture of toxic masculinity. Cassandra Thomas (Mulligan) has been irrevocably damaged by it. She wants to fix it. That means seeking vengeance.
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, the showrunner on Killing Eve (and, fun fact, the actress who plays a young Camilla Parker Bowles on The Crown), it should be no surprise that the film is audacious as hell, especially when it comes to tone.
It juggles so many risks that some might go dizzy watching the sheer number of balls fly through the air. Some might be offended by the idea that “fucking badass” could be used at all to describe a film that explores the emotional and psychological effects of sexual assault, not to mention simply being a woman existing in a society structured to dismiss male aggression, be it micro or violent.
But there’s something invigorating about the way in which Fennell’s film, centered around a career-best performance from Mulligan, charges into the #MeToo conversation—and the entire cultural fortress built to protect shitty men—with explosives strapped to its chest. Once it detonates, we’re made to pick through the rubble, forced to examine each painful piece, wondering how we’re going to rebuild something so broken.
The film’s vernacular, especially in any attempt to distill what it “is” from its plot description, suggests a tongue-twister of cultural buzzwords of the moment: “#MeToo,” “toxic masculinity,” “revenge-thriller,” “female gaze,” “women’s empowerment,” “agency,” “cultural satire,” “gender norms,” “singular vision.”
That insinuates a film that is exploiting zeitgeisty preoccupations, a sort of attention-seeking cinema. But Promising Young Woman, with all the smarts that its title suggests, even seems self-aware about that inevitable critique, something that drives it deeper into a take on what is happening in the world today that doesn’t just seem refreshing or immediate, but galvanizing.
We meet Cassie slouched over and seemingly incapacitated on a red sofa at a bar, overserved and left vulnerable for the hunting, like a wounded gazelle in the savanna. Circling her like nature would have us believe it intended are three men, talking misogynistically about the drunk girl left for bounty as they jockey over which one is going to pounce. The thing is, Cassie has had enough of this being the “natural order” of things.
One of the boys, played by Adam Brody, feigns magnanimous and tells her he’s going to take her home, the consummate nice guy perfectly cast with one TV’s greatest nice guys.
Actually, maybe let’s go to my apartment for a drink, he suggests, as she mumbles an incoherent answer. After serving her a glass of kumquat liqueur, he starts to kiss her, her mouth barely moving in response. She asks to lie down, so he moves her to the bedroom, and attempts to perform oral sex on her as she passes out.
Suddenly, Cassie jerks up, a crazed look in her eyes as a slasher-movie music cue strikes up. He cowers with fear as it looks like she’s about to devour him. It’s an all-time great “whaaaaaaaat is going on?” movie moment. Cassie, you see, is not another nice girl about to be taken advantage of by another “nice guy.” She’s taking control.
Cassie keeps a notebook, a running list of names and corresponding tally marks for each man she traps and exposes, these “nice guys.” She goes to bars, acts drunk, and waits for one of these “nice guys” to pretend to want to take care of her, but who instead take her home and try to have sex with her even as she pretends to slip further into a blackout—each one protesting that she’s overreacting, that they’re “nice guys,” when she reveals her ruse and shames them.
Bless the casting director for this film, who orchestrated the trauma we all needed to feel by casting, like Brody, some of your favorite “nice guy” celebrities as these shitty men: Veep’s Sam Richardson, New Girl’s Max Greenfield, Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and GLOW’s Chris Lowell.
The casting coupled with the use of a pop music soundtrack that could only be described as glorious—a strings version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” rivals the aforementioned Paris Hilton moment—sees Fennell reveal just how astute she is at co-opting our own pop-culture expectations and biases and weaponizing them against us.
She’s daring us to enjoy ourselves, which we do, which is icky given the subject matter, which makes us feel guilty, which makes us think, which all just repeats on a loop for two hours.
This is a revenge mission for Cassie. She really was a promising young woman once, one of two, actually. She and her best friend, Nina, were medical school students full of potential. They, like all their classmates, were also party animals. One night Nina went to a party without Cassie, and drank herself into oblivion. She was sexually assaulted by a classmate—a “nice guy”—while everyone watched and laughed.
Both Nina and Cassie wouldn’t return to medical school. Seven years later, Cassie’s crusade would be on Nina’s behalf.
To say any more about the plot would ruin the wild ride the film whisks you on. But know this: Even after everything you’ve just read, Promising Young Woman is one of the most endearingly romantic movies I’ve seen in a long time.
Credit the chemistry between Mulligan and Bo Burnham, the actor-director whose coming-of-age masterpiece Eighth Grade was a Sundance hit two years ago, for that. Burnham’s charm—and it is a serious, destabilizing charm—as a former classmate named Ryan is enough to rescue Cassie from a spiral that was bankrupting her of life and vitality, enough to even make her believe in “nice guys” again.
It is also the film in which I laughed the most at the Sundance Film Festival thus far. Fennell has one eye on all of your expectations as the movie careens on, ready to wink at you if it’s coming against a thriller-movie trope or drop an outrageous one-liner amidst the film’s most disturbing predatory sequences.
So there’s the lightning rod. Are the tonal gymnastics inspired, or are they crass? Is it revenge commentary, or revenge porn? Is it provocative, or style-over-substance? And what about those who will blanketly dismiss the idea that no comedy is dark enough—and this is pitch-black—to justify humor in this subject matter?
Those questions, even if the answer for some might result in a visceral hatred for the film, are part of its value. It’s early yet, but for my money it’s the best movie we’ve seen at Sundance.