Cassie (short for Cassandra, no subtlety here) is a magnificent machine of vengeance, acted to steely perfection by Oscar-nominated Carey Mulligan. “Promising Young Woman” is a superb addition to the revenge thriller genre, at once entertaining and politically didactic, playing openly to the #MeToo movement.
The title has a double meaning, referring to Cassie and to her best friend and soulmate, Nina, both of whom dropped out of medical school after a drunk Nina was gang-raped by fellow students. The film opens with Cassie mid-obsession in her drive to teach half the human race a lesson, one man at a time. She has a book hidden under her bed in which she keeps track of those she’s educated, making a red or black tally mark for each. And it’s in that book that she lists those she deems responsible for Nina’s slide into oblivion, as she pursues them like prey.
Emerald Fennell, in her first feature screenplay and hand at directing (she’s nominated for Oscars for both), cleverly links this caper-film pursuit to the revenge thriller. Cassie is not only a woman obsessed but also a savvy detective along the lines of Hannibal Lector (though she’s not a psychopath) or Colombo, using Socratic questioning to allow her targets to indict themselves. We’re deprived of the plotting that goes into Cassie’s entrapments, but we enjoy those plots unfolding before our eyes, as her former medical school friend, and the Dean of the school—both women—ultimately acknowledge they did not take Nina’s gang rape seriously.
The Dean says accusations by women of sexual assaults “happen all the time” and “we can’t ruin boys’ lives.” That thinking, even merely stating the case in those terms, seems dated in 2021, an indication that “Promising Young Woman” is not about to delve into the subtleties of the legal and moral arguments around sexual assault allegations; there’s no possibility of taking the side of a wrongly accused male. If you are committed to a nuanced analysis of sexual assault rights, set that aside.
Nina’s gang rape happened 7 years before the events in the film, and yet the attitudes of those involved, as Cassie reveals, have not evolved. “We were kids…that was then,” says one of the now-doctors. And, even though one might expect more to have changed, there’s enough of the Brett Kavanaugh defense here that the statements hit home: they were just boys from good families whose careers should not now be ruined. Says one, “It’s every man’s worst nightmare, getting accused of something like that.” Cassandra: “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”
Fennell’s script (she’s also written for TV, including several “Killing Eve” episodes) is compelling; the dialog is at times tense and provocative (in Cassie’s probing of her prey) and at times comedic. Many of the funny lines come out of the mouth of Cassie’s one love interest, Ryan (Bo Burnham, writer and director of the entrancing “Eighth Grade” ), who is a pediatrician and a goofball. A scene in which they dance in the aisles of a pharmacy is a charming rom-com interlude, evoking “La La Land” (2016); they sing along to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” with lines like “If you show me real love, baby/I’ll show you mine.”
The soundtrack of “Promising Young Woman” is laced with lyrics that overtly underscore the plot, including the opening song, “Boys”—”I was busy thinkin’ ’bout boys, boys, boys…”—and the last two, “Angel of the Morning” and “Last Laugh.”
As with the soundtrack, every aspect of this film is in the service of the “lessons” to be learned, including an expansive citation of other films. There’s spitting in the film, a reminder of “I Spit on Your Grave,” a 1978 rape and revenge drama. The point of view of the camera is repeatedly one in which Cassie is centered, even sitting bolt upright in bed, like Regan in “The Exorcist” (1973). Fennell herself (well-known as an actress, including as Camille Parker Bowles in the 2020 TV season of “The Crown”) makes a Hitchcock-like appearance in an un-credited role as host of the make-up video tutorial, “Blowjob Lips” (similar to 13-year-old Kayla’s videos in “Eighth Grade”). The gang-rape of a drunk woman was explored by a docudrama featuring Jodie Foster in “The Accused” (1988), and the obsessed woman was indelibly etched into the cultural consciousness by Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction” (1987).
The last evokes a question raised in the film about Cassie’s mental state: is she seeking understandable, even reasonable revenge, or is she obsessed to the point of mental instability? People as committed as Nina’s mother tell her to “move on,” to recapture her own life, which—at age 30—has been reduced to living with her mostly clueless parents and working in a coffee shop. One arc of the story involves whether Cassie can, indeed, move on, and the final scenes answer that question. Those scenes also provide some of the stills used for the film that market it within the horror genre. It’s not; almost no blood is spilled. That’s not to say there isn’t tragedy and death in “Promising Young Woman”; it is, in essence, a revenge film, and an outstanding one at that.
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4 stars)
Director: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham
Oscars: Nominated: Best Motion Picture of the Year; Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Carey Mulligan; Best Achievement in Directing, Emerald Fennell; Best Original Screenplay, Emerald Fennell; Best Achievement in Film Editing, Frédéric Thoraval
Other Awards: 87 wins, 166 nominations
Runtime: 113 minutes
Apple TV; see JustWatch here.