Review by David Baldwin
Shook and unsettled. That was how I felt after watching Promising Young Woman back in November. I rarely feel either of those emotions watching movies nowadays (especially during a raging pandemic when so little is genuinely knocking my socks off), and after it ended, it felt like entire scenes were seared directly into my brain. I kept thinking about Writer/Director/Producer Emerald Fennell’s debut feature for weeks on end, and kept coming back to what an incredible achievement it was to behold.
I finally received another chance to watch it again this week and hoped it was all hyperbole or something I was just remembering differently. I thought I would feel less shook knowing exactly where it was going. Less unsettled. But those same scenes and moments just struck harder. They echoed and reverberated more powerfully. I still felt the ground give out below and the wind get knocked right out of me. That is what kind of an unforgettable and uncompromising experience Promising Young Woman is. It makes for one of the very best films from last year – and one that might even be hard to top this year too.
I went in knowing very little about the film and feel it was key to enjoying some of the hairpin turns Fennell takes her characters on. Suffice to say, the film revolves around Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a med school dropout who is haunted by her past and actively seeking vengeance against literally everyone who comes into her crosshairs, whether she knows them or not.
That may sound like typical revenge thriller fodder and the kind of thing we have seen play out in multiple horror fantasies about scorned women destroying the men who hurt them. But Promising Young Woman is so much more than that. Fennell may borrow some elements from those types of films, but she has far too much on her mind for the film to be so callously dismissed as being a part of those genre exercises. No, it feels much more like an indictment on rape culture, the “#MeToo” movement, victim shaming and more. Her dialogue is unfiltered and authentic. She is rightfully angry with all of it and she channels those feelings into this 113-minute long film that is just as darkly hilarious as it is thrilling, suspenseful, horrifying and downright aggravating. The film pivots maniacally at certain points between all of those tones and genres, but Fennell guides through them with the ease and mastery of an old pro. She plays right into the expectations you have, and subverts others with calculated precision. You may think you know where the film might be going – but Fennell makes damn sure that you don’t.
All of this praise would be meaningless without Mulligan standing at the centre of it all. I have never been the biggest fan of her work, but I was in awe watching her playing Cassie. She commands the screen, grabs your attention almost immediately, and then proceeds to never lets it go. She is just as profoundly angry as Fennell is, and delights in spitting acidic and savage barbs at nearly everyone else on-screen. Her raw, animalistic ferocity elevates every moment she is on screen, and she practically runs circles around the terrific supporting cast of recognizable character actors around her (including a wonderfully game Bo Burnham). She has a give-no-fucks attitude that tells you everything you need to know about Cassie, and is even better when she lets her guard down to show you who she really is. I could keep writing and describing it with more buzzword verbs, but that would genuinely take away from its greatness. Quite simply, it is a brilliant, electrifying performance that is just as unforgettable as the film is.
Fennell’s subversive use of neon colour schemes and her eclectic soundtrack choices are amongst the film’s other key highlights (both are put to good use during a karaoke dance scene in a pharmacy scored to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind”; no I am not kidding). But if you have gotten this far, you have no doubt heard something about the film’s third act. I will not spoil what it entails, but it is inherently controversial and rightfully acts as a litmus test of whether you are fully on board for Fennell’s vision or not. Fennell makes some bold and disturbing choices within it and while I admire it more than a number of other people, I am not the one who should be discussing it in detail. So I encourage you to watch Promising Young Woman and then seek out some reviews and features from women who are able to speak to it a whole lot better than I can or should (I do not fully agree with her stance, but Mary Beth McAndrew’s piece on RogerEbert.com is a good place to start).
Promising Young Woman is an incredible picture that is just as unsettling as it is unforgettable. Fennell has come out swinging with her debut feature, and Mulligan has turned in a brilliant, show stopping performance that would be criminal for the Academy to ignore. I thought writing about it would make me a little less shook and unsettled, but it only made those feelings more pronounced. Do not think twice on watching this one – it is an absolute must-see.
Promising Young Woman is available on PVOD and On-Demand on Friday, January 15, 2021 and is now playing in select theatres. Please ensure you are cautious and respect all Covid-19 protocols if you choose to see this film theatrically.