Carey Mulligan is devastating in Emerald Fennell’s disorienting story of love, violence, and pain that refuses to give easy answers
Promising Young Woman isn’t a film about rage – it’s about grief. Grief as an illogical, catatonic thing, something that swallows you whole and spits you out, that doesn’t understand notions of heroes and villains, of revenge or catharsis.
In writer-director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is grieving. Her best friend, Nina, was raped during their time together at medical school, as a crowd of young men looked on, filmed it, and laughed. It’s implied that after Nina dropped out, she took her own life. There were no repercussions for her assault. We watch as Cassie is forced to come to terms with this situation, or, rather, go through the motions as her grief keeps a stranglehold on her actions and pushes and pulls the entire mess in every direction.
Given Universal's decision to market the film as a feminist revenge thriller, and trailers teasing a sexy subversion of the rape-revenge genre with poppy sound cues and sugary design, it's easy to make assumptions about exactly what this film is. But these categorisations couldn't be more wrong: the troubling power of Promising Young Woman lies in the frustrating, radical truth of it. It’s never empowering or jubilant. Even if everybody else has moved on, even if you’re told to let go, this is a film about how that's not always an option.
Cassie doesn’t brutally murder every man unlucky enough to cross her path, as teased by a scene in which red trickles down her arm after she goes home with a guy who thinks she's too drunk to function. And while she does go to clubs every week pretending to be too drunk to function, and she does go home with these guys, Fennell also understands that this is real life: how much power does a woman, who knew and loved another woman who was violated, have to fight back? You can just about spit in someone’s coffee and get away with it, but what would happen if you really did pull a knife? As often as you joke or dream about it, would you, could you, actually kill a man?
The script of Promising Young Woman is illuminating not for its perfectly packaged catchphrases or rousing feminist teachings – which were never the point – but for its plain understanding of the scepticism and blatant mistrust any one woman has almost definitely encountered time and time again. Familiar catchalls like, “I have to give him the benefit of the doubt,” or “We were kids,” or “You did nothing wrong” work because Fennell keeps the sharp, dangerous lines for the characters who have actually earned them – those who understand the severity of their actions, the violence to be found in a lack of accountability and the lethal repercussions of casual neglect.
At the strange heart of Promising Young Woman is a love story. Well, two in fact – the platonic yet searing one between Cassie and Nina, and that which develops with Ryan (Bo Burnham), one of their former classmates. The romance with Ryan flits between punishing and pure; after an argument he asks Cassie: “Do you want to go to dinner, you miserable asshole?” and later is so overjoyed to realise she’s also falling in love that he promises to buy her a bicycle.
It makes no sense, and that’s the point. Love, like grief, makes you act irrationally. And speaking of acting: Mulligan and Burnham are outstanding. Burnham’s frenetic, insecure comedy – which in his stand-up work always toed the line between subversive and just plain mean – finds a perfect playground to add something new to the “nice guy” template. This “nice guy” is the film’s target – it’s obvious from the string of cartoonish cameos from Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and even GLOW’s Chris Lowell – but Ryan gives you something to hold onto, to fall for, and – just for a moment – to trust in. He’s kind. And that’s where the true threat lies.
Mulligan, meanwhile, juggles a maelstrom of emotions – grief, confusion, frustration, and the small taste of hope and happiness she finds with Ryan – masterfully. If this were a boilerplate rape-revenge thriller, she would be praised for the sheer force of her performance. Perhaps viewers would be blown away by just how loud she could scream or how ruthlessly she could kill. Instead, Fennell asks her star to look inward, and it's all there in the gravelly line delivery, the pursed lips, the lilting eyebrows that mask pain but can’t hide despair. Even at her most provocative or performative, Mulligan is never less than heartbreaking.
Yet Promising Young Woman is still teeming with cheeky pop songs, suggesting a world where awful things happen but the music keeps playing, where a woman can die but the colours don't fade. But it's one of the more understated moments that cuts the deepest: as Cassie whiles away the hours at her dead-end job in a pastel-hued coffee shop, a sulphurous cover of “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” by Cigarettes After Sex plays in the background. Nobody interacts with the song, but its haunting melancholy lingers long after the fire has turned to ashes. “Nothing’s gonna hurt you, baby/As long as you’re with me, you’ll be just fine,” promise the lyrics. Except, of course, as with so many things here, it turns out to be a lie.
Promising Young Woman isn’t perfect – some choices are excessive; sometimes comedy turns sour and fear turns to disgust. Those who have sinned get off far too easily. The police will not save us, the film tells us, and makes no suggestion as to who will. But there, in its grisly but still somehow galvanising core, Promising Young Woman is so devastatingly real. So unfair, so frustrating and terrifying, while still seeing and fully believing in the glimmers of joy as well.
Fennell and all her bold, sensitive collaborators understand violence against women – emotional and physical, individual and collective – as a horrifically complex thing. It makes you feel everything at once and nothing at all. More than rage or revenge, the film is about feeling numb, or even hollow. No amount of fantasised catharsis can replace what is lost. But delivered with such violent conviction, Promising Young Woman has the air of a lifeline. A movie in which to see yourself, and to give your loved ones a reason to finally wake up.
Promising Young Woman is available to stream on Sky from 16 April.Where to watch