by Amanda Landwehr / Section Editor
Director Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” finally hit theaters on Jan. 25 after nearly a year of delays due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. So far, it’s a critical darling, and it has already earned plenty of Oscar buzz following its Golden Globe and SAG nominations. The movie takes a serious subject matter, and turns it into…kind of a joke. But oddly enough? It succeeds. Mostly.
Our protagonist, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year-old woman clearly struggling to move on from her vaguely troubling past, lives a double life. By day, she harrassas customers as a barista alongside her manager (Laverne Cox). By night, she seeks out the grimiest nightclubs, pretends to be wildly drunk and allows seemingly well-intended men to “help” her by taking her back to their apartments. The trick? She’s actually stone-cold sober, and calls out these “nice guys” for their disgusting actions when they try to have sex with her.
“Promising Young Woman” makes a clear point: a woman cannot consent when she’s under the influence. This message is straightforward enough, and I was expecting the movie to be a sort of slasher-thriller about a murderous vigilante seeking revenge for rape victims. But instead of just blood and gore, I got something entirely different.
Throughout the film, viewers get scattered peeks into Cassie’s reason for vengeance: the untimely death of her childhood friend, Nina. The backstory of Nina takes nearly the entire movie to fully emerge. A promising young woman herself, Nina was a victim of sexual assault during her time at med school with Cassie. After her accusation charges were dismissed, Nina committed suicide, leaving Cassie an empty shell of herself — no passions, no direction, lost without the guidance of her best friend. At the end of the film, we see how rage and a deadly desire to seek justice has fully overcome Cassie’s character: at the cost of her own life.
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the “rape revenge” genre. For survivors of sexual assault, there might be a sort of comfort in watching abusers recieve the bad karma they deserve. On the other hand, scenes with overtones of sexual violence might be triggering if not delicatley handled by filmmakers. And we’re all too aware of how Hollywood likes to exploit the pain of women for profit.
“Promising Young Woman” gets a lot of things right. Rape accusations are often dismissed at the prospect of “ruining a young man’s future,” and survivors seldom recieve closure for the pain and suffering of their attack. Despite this, some of the attack scenes in the film were enough to make me queasy. For a victim of sexual assault, I can’t help but think this film, regardless of its larger message, might be upsetting to watch.
However, beyond its convoluted message, “Promising Young Woman” triumphs in its visuals. A kind of early 2000s bubblegum aesthetic surrounds Cassie and works as a character of its own. She’s often dressed in flowy, feminine garments, with long blonde hair flowing and sporting pastel-painted nails. The coffee shop she works at has a traditionally “girly” interior, and her parents’ home is draped in soft textures and gentle colors. Throughout the film, Cassie is the visualization of femininity, and the “feminine” spaces she exists in provide a sense of comfort and safety. It’s striking to see Cassie placed against masculine settings: a dark, rustic log cabin, a cold inner-city condo. This masterful control of color works to convey messages of gender, power and internal conflict.
One of my main issues with “Promising Young Woman” is its inconsistent tone. The film had some troubles with tone towards the end of the second act as if the movie forgot its own genre. It walks a fine line between being a romantic comedy and a revenge thriller. In terms of tone, it goes from being ultra-serious to ironic in seconds, making me unsure of how I was supposed to feel throughout the film. This might be attributed to Fennell, the film’s first-time director, who despite proving her capability as a filmmaker, might have struggled with pacing each of the various story elements.
As for the actors, I wasn’t surprised to see a series of strong performances. With appearances from Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Adam Brody and more, “Promising Young Woman” certainly dons an all-star cast. What I was surprised to see was comedian Bo Burnham making his debut as a leading man, playing Cassie’s love interest Ryan.
It’s almost as if Hollywood is weaponizing these charming comics by making them play horrible men. Burnham’s performance was good (I mean, it’s Bo Burnham, how could he not be good?), but I couldn’t help but feel like he was excessively dangled in the audience’s face. Ryan’s character arc was wickedly sinister, but was unfortunately subject to the film’s inconsistent tone. There’s this strange rom-com moment between him and Cassie in the latter half of the film that feels entirely out of place, and watching just that scene alone felt like hours. I can’t help but feel conflicted about the casting of Burnham for this specific character, because his “nice guy” image is so spot-on for the character of Ryan. However, Burnham’s stylistically dry humor just clashes with the otherwise serious tone of this film.
As for Carey Mulligan –– is there any role this woman can’t rock? Mulligan’s name has been all over the news, with her performance in “Promising Young Woman” likely to earn her a Best Lead Actress nomination at this year’s Oscars. Critics aren’t wrong — she gives one hell of a good performance as Cassie Thomas. Mulligan’s character is wonderfully complex: a woman dealing with grief, hatred, purposelessness and sorrow as she seeks vengeance for her childhood best friend. Mulligan’s performance communicates that so clearly, and there’s something so wildly compelling about seeing a powerful woman scold horrible men on-screen.
I’m still hesitant to agree with the film’s Golden Globe nomination for Best Drama. Maybe I’m just bitter that Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” wasn’t nominated, but hey — I think we’ve evolved enough as a society to realize that award shows are kind of a sham.
There seems to be a surge in women-led revenge flicks recently. Think “Birds of Prey,” “Invisible Man” or “Knives Out,” films that leave you thinking, “good for her!” There’s a clear message coming from Hollywood: women are sick of it. “Promising Young Woman,” despite its inmistable flaws, is another triumph in this new, feminist sub-genre. The movie was arguably problematic, somewhat messy and disappointed with its unsatisfying ending. But honestly? I’m excited to see more.
7 out of 10 Torches