Film Review: PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)
Updated: Jan 27, 2021
A powerful, stylish takedown of toxic masculinity.
Set to throbbing all-women, pop soundtrack, Promising Young Woman is a powerful and surprisingly funny indictment of masculinity. But a close look at the film shows that there is much more going on here. Debutant Emerald Fennell's love of films comes through her exploration of the different genres she uses to tell her story. The first few scenes announce this smartly.
The opening image is of a bunch of male waists gyrating to Charlie XCX's "I Was Busy Thinking About Boys". Just some corporate over-achievers enjoying their weekend. In the same bar, there is Cassandra (Carrey Mulligan), who seems very drunk and hence 'easy' to a group of men. This is a film of deliberate contradictions so it is actually the man who is the most decent (tellingly played by Adam Brody from The OC where he really played a nice guy) that approaches her to offer to call her a cab and see her home safely. He gets the cab diverted to his house. But before he is able to take advantage of his drunk prey, she reveals, to his shock and the audience's glee, that she was only pretending to be drunk.
"What are you doing?", she asks him.
We cut to her walking a triumphant walk in a new morning with an "It's raining men" remix blasting in the background. There seems to be blood on her feet and as the camera tilts up her shirt. We realize that she is eating a hot dog and the red is the ketchup.
It is important to recount this whole scene because this also announces the kind of film this is: a slippery one. Especially when one tries to fix a genre on it. Most will probably call it a revenge thriller. If it is one, then it subverts our expectations because, in the world of B-Movies (and the films inspired by them) when women don the avatar of an avenging angel, the consequences are always bloody and gory. Here Cassandra's revenge is almost sans blood and gore. This keeps the film scarily grounded and her pain more palpable.
By revealing the 'blood' to be a sauce in the above-described scene, the director has already warned that one should not be expecting any regular vigilante/vendetta drama.
Cassandra keeps a diary with where she marks the number of days and the names of several men. It is still not made clear if she is killing these men. This is explained later in the film when her "victim" is Christopher Mitz-Plase, an actor whose most famous role is from the film Superbad. It is not hard to imagine that the high-schoolers from that popular comedy that depicted throwing a party, growing up to the be the exact same creepy "hunters" that Cassandra targets. There is also, tellingly, a poster of the film 'Panique' in the background here. Julien Divvier's French film-noir classic is about an easily manipulated woman.
Cassandra's backstory is revealed like a book, slowly opening and expanding through her journey. All that we can glean initially that her trauma includes the loss of her friend, Nina. The film changes its gears once again when Cassandra is romantically pursued by Ryan (Jo Burnham). Initially coming across as too-good-to-be-true, Ryan eventually manages to warm her towards himself and the film becomes almost like a rom-com. These scenes are puzzling for their change of tone but even they are very well done and are actually funny. Following the trajectory of this genre, there is a misunderstanding, a separation, and a continuation of the relationship in full-swing. It is almost like watching a miniature film within a film. The thing that is great is not just that these sequences are handled well, but also that the director is willing to go there with this commitment. There is a scene where both the couple breaks out singing Paris Hilton.
Carrey Mulligan keeps up the pace with the film and nimbly changes her act. It is a superbly layered performance that just might (should) put her in the Oscar race.
But as we already know, Cassandra's baggage is too heavy and dark to not to touch this aspect of her life. I wouldn't like to reveal much here, but a revelation makes her want to complete the circle she had started.
Fennell says that one of the themes of the film is forgiveness. And that is shown through Jordan (an uncredited turn by Alfred Molina), an ex-consul who has helped many rapists get off the hook. Now retired, he lives in guilt that he cannot shake away.
Beneath all its layers, Promising Young Woman is about the long shadow that toxic masculinity casts. A lesser director would have been satisfied with this timely polemic as its major theme. But Fennell goes deeper. This film is ultimately about grief and how promising lives can be destroyed by it.
Cassandra's style of revenge and the fact that she is able to maintain her humanity till the end is what makes this film a corrective measure to, let's say, John Wick, where the Keanu Reeves titular character comes back from a rampage without any moral quibble. Or even Joker, where an entire film becomes an apology for a despicable villain.
Despite the grimness towards the end, the climax is oddly cathartic. The film has anger but it is of someone who has a mature understanding of the way things are. Someone who would go after the problems with a studied, emphatic plan rather than a chainsaw.
While Fennell still seems to be struggling with her style, she looks like a very promising young woman herself.