“Promising Young Woman” is Incendiary, Horrifying and the Best Film of the Year

2020 has offered very little in the way of pleasure. Count the COVID-19 pandemic, the crippling economic fallout as a result of it, the complete and utter upheaval of everything that was once perceived as normal just to name a few things. One of the things lost in the wake of this traumatic year has been there art of moviegoing; the never-ending argument of theaters vs. streaming is now unavoidable as big name distributors reconcile with shifting their calendars. The Oscars have extended their eligibility window, while also (begrudgingly?) adjusting their rules to favor films released on streaming services like Netflix. Warner Bros. has decided to put their entire slate of films for the next year to stream exclusively on HBO Max, while others are holding out waiting for normalcy to return.

Going to the movies by myself was something of a weekly tradition; there was nothing more reassuring after a hard week than knowing I could disconnect for a bit, and think of nothing but people on the screen in front of me. Losing that has been difficult, but something I hadn’t really reckoned with until last night when I was fortunate enough to watch a screener of Promising Young Woman in my living room. I’ve been watching movies all year long in my bedroom or my living room, but last night was the first time in a long while that I really thought about how incredible it would have felt to experience this film in a theater with other people. When it ended, I paced around my apartment for a half hour while I tried to process what I had just seen. After everything that’s happened this year, I couldn’t remember the last time a movie had affected me so viscerally; it felt as if I had just been struck by lightning.

Written and directed by Killing Eve show runner Emerald Fennell (though you may recognize her as a young Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall from the most recent season of The Crown), Promising Young Woman is an incendiary and thorny movie, one that is oftentimes just as hilarious as it is horrifying. It’s my favorite film of the year.

The story is centered on Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan, incredible), a thirty-year-old med school dropout. By all accounts, Cassie was a brilliant student who had a very bright future ahead of her, but she dropped out after her best friend Nina was raped by one of their fellow students. Now, Cassie lives with her parents and spends her days working at a coffee shop owned by her friend Gail (Laverne Cox, always wonderful). At night, Cassie moonlights as a helpless, near-blackout drunk woman at the local clubs, waiting for a good guy to come along and help her along. The situations always go the same: They see her, swoop her up like an injured bird and take her back home. As they smile at her, wave her hair out of her face and tell her how beautiful she is, they move her hands down her body as she asks “What are you doing?” They always ignore her.

That’s when the charade ends, and Cassie pulls back her mask and ensnares the men in the trap she’s expertly laid. She takes her turn dressing them down, only unlike them, she does this with words. Each sentence is a barb laced with poison, aimed to kill. She then leaves, and documents her interaction in a journal. And while no actual violence ever takes place, Fennell’s deft direction and Mulligan’s brilliant performance has us tightly coiled around their fingers, waiting with bated breath in anticipation that it could happen at any second. Cassie is happy to go through this routine day in and day out, even as her parents (played by a welcome Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) urge her to move out and get on with her life. Everything changes, however when Ryan, (Bo Burnham) an acquaintance from college returns and begins chipping away at the wall she’s built. She’s faced with the prospect of walking away from the traumatic event that has dominated her life, and walking towards something resembling happiness and closure at the very same time that she’s presented with the perfect opportunity to settle the score, and get revenge for her now deceased best friend.

I don’t want to spend too much on the plot, because spoiling the plot for a movie many can’t safely access right now is cruel and also because this is a ride of a film that deserves to be experienced unsullied. Few films have excited, scared and infuriated me as Promising Young Woman did; I felt as if every neuron in my brain was firing at once. I immediately poured through every review available, devouring the varied reactions. Though reviews have been largely positive, this is a movie that is going to land differently for everyone; the ending in particular has ignited debate online. I recognize that as a white gay man, my perspective and reactions aren’t going to be the same to women who experience this film, even if we both have similar experiences with sexual assault. And that excites me; I can’t remember the last time a movie was this exciting to dissect.

Much has been said of Carey Mulligan’s performance, and I am happy to add my voice to the choir; words fail to describe just how phenomenal she is. It’s a tight rope to walk, but she makes it look effortless. I’ve been a fan since she got that first Oscar nomination back in 2009 with An Education, and she’s been deserving of acclaim with performances in Shame, Far From the Madding Crowd, Mudbound and Wildlife. Her work in Promising Young Woman is unlike anything she’s ever done before, and deserves to make people view her in a whole new light (she’s not just a period actress, though she does a very good job in those films thank you very much). Steely and vulnerable, she does an incredible job at portraying the simmering rage that could boil over at any moment while also mapping out the damaged woman underneath. It’s Oscar-worthy in every sense, and even then it would feel like we owe her more for her work. Equally amazing is Bo Burnham, who makes the case that he was born to play the love interest and rises to Mulligan’s level at every opportunity. Rounding out the supporting cast are players like Allison Brie, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Molly Shannon and Alfred Molina; this cast is stacked. Each player brings it, no matter the size of their role.

As I said, Promising Young Woman is a movie that is going to be one thing to someone and something completely different to someone else. At times, it speaks truth to power; to some, this will feel revelatory while to others it will feel redundant. The “rape revenge” thriller is incredibly tricky territory, but I believe Promising Young Woman succeeds on the basis that it’s not trying to to paint anyone as any one thing. At no point did feel pandering or exploitative. On the contrary, even the caricatures in the film serve a greater purpose. Our “villains” aren’t big, hulking, intimidating or brandishing weapons; most of them are “nice guys” that we would even give second glances to. And that’s where the danger lies. In interviews, Fennell has discussed at length in interviews that a lot of the male characters act like they’re in romantic comedies. This disconnect between Mulligan’s performance and the performances of many of her male co-stars (namely Adam Brody in the film’s opening sequence) heightens the unending tension of the film. But Fennell takes this a step further in her characterization of Cassie, and pushes the envelope past the comfort zone. While many have read the film as painting Cassie in a saintly light, I couldn’t disagree more. There were several times throughout the film I caught myself cheering Cassie on in her crusade, and then she would do something that would make me immediately question my reaction. “What is revenge?” “What does it look like?” “Do I really want it?” “How do “you get revenge for something so traumatic and devastating?”

These are questions I still do not have the answers to, and I’m not sure any answers I eventually come to will be clear cut or digestible enough to include in a formal review. But I appreciated Promising Young Woman for pushing me somewhere other films like this hadn’t taken me before. Perhaps you already know that “nice guys” are oftentimes just as dangerous as The Babadook and Freddy Krueger. And perhaps the dialogue feels reminiscent of the dry cynicism from MTV’s Daria. Maybe you were like me, and stopped breathing a few times during the running time because you had absolutely no idea what was about to happen next. These critiques and reactions are all valid. But regardless of where everyone lands, it’s refreshing that a film this uninterested in comfort and symmetry will be seen and analyzed for years to come.

Grade: A+