Perhaps one of the most pervasive myths of modern society is the idea that we shape our own destinies. In such an interconnected world, the deeds and — more critically — the misdeeds of others have a profound impact on our course in life. This is, of course, especially true for women. One half of the population whose lives and bodies have historically been, and in many places and ways still are, controlled by men.
Derailed from her life plan is exactly where Cassie (Carey Mulligan) finds herself at the outset of Promising Young Woman. Once the top student in her medical school class, now she’s a dropout living at her parents’ and working in a coffee shop. Cassie did nothing to upend her future, rather her path was decided by the actions a collection of men who thought they were entitled to the body of her best friend, Nina.
Promising Young Woman is a furious film about a woman taking back control of her life. Cassie spends her nights exacting righteous revenge for Nina by scaring straight the seedy “nice guys” trolling nightclubs for vulnerable women. Her cause may be noble, but it’s one that has consumed her entirely, destroying personal relationships and her faith in people all together.
In her directorial debut, Emerald Fennell crafts a well paced, uniquely stylized, genre influenced romp. Her characters aren’t perfectly synthesized, often feeling a bit hollow underneath the film’s saturated candy coating. Realism isn’t necessarily what the first time director is after with Promising Young Woman, she’s here to evoke an emotional response.
Interrogating the actions of Cassie, or even the men in this movie, is besides the point. I’m more interested in the way Promising Young Woman portrays the rippling effect of trauma and the ways in which the repercussions of predatory actions by men unduly further the pain of their victims and those close to them.
**Spoilers Ahead for Promising Young Woman and a Trigger Warning for discussion of sexual assault and rape**
Cassie — whose mental wellbeing and future prospects suffered from a rape that occurred not to her, but her best friend — is the notable example of this, but she isn’t alone. Never physically seen on screen, Nina’s absence leaves a vacuum that drives every action Cassie undertakes. Those actions, targeting the perpetrators and complicit enablers of Nina’s assault also fall disproportionally on women. Until a controversial ending, the men Cassie hunts down suffer virtually no consequences beyond the discomfort of the confrontation itself.
Each man maintains their innocence, downplays their role in a girl’s suicide and emphasizes their own victimhood. Instead the emotional trauma of Cassie’s vengeance tears apart the women who allowed Nina’s assault to go unreported and unpunished. Madison (Alison Brie), a former classmate who didn’t believe Nina, comes apart at the seams when Cassie places her in a similar position. Dean Walker (Connie Britton) allowed the perpetrators of Nina’s rape to walk away unscathed and as a result was forced to recon with the prospect of her own daughter being placed in a similarly dangerous situation. Even Cassie herself falls prey to this quest to set things right while the men responsible maintain their positions of power and influence.
There is one notable exception. In perhaps the most impressive scene of the whole film, Cassie comes after the lawyer, Jordan (Alfred Molina), who successfully defended Nina’s rapist. Cassie is welcomed into his home to deliver a reckoning he has long awaited. He takes his seat on a couch, behind him the pristine modern decor of a man who has made a good living defending vile predators. Across from him sits his guest, behind her nothing but two potted plants, lifeless and wilted. Cassie, like those plants, has been drained of her vitality at the hands of this man.
Then something incredible happens. Jordan stands, broken by the consequences of his role in countless assaults, and Fennell slowly follows with the camera as he crosses the room to sit beside Cassie, in front of those very same symbolic plants. The only man who suffers in this film is the one who torments himself.
Promising Young Woman’s glitziness and thin characterizations at times make the film feel hollow. Most of the film’s specific situations, conversations and depictions are highly stylized and cinematic with very little concern for realism. If not for a brilliant turn by Carey Mulligan, who perfectly portrays a range of intense emotion, the whole film may have fallen apart. In theme however, Emerald Fennell’s movie excels. The cohesive picture she paints forms one of the most powerful films of the year. 8/10