Promising Young Woman is mad. Damn mad. And it damn well should be. The feature screenwriting and directorial debut of Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) is a consciously, thoughtfully thorny and confrontational revenge story, driven boldly by its star performance from Carey Mulligan. It tensely and intently examines the #MeToo era with a bold disregard for what anyone might think or say. Filled with simmering rage, and a film that’s often eager to examine the layers of hypocrisies through which a “boys will be boys” culture has been formed in institutions over the course of generations, this cinematic takedown is a vibrant effort to dispel “nice guys” and dismantle a society that often sides with men while disrupting women’s futures in the process.
It’s an inspired, infuriated cultural critique masquerading in movie form, which might bother and unnerve some viewers. If it does, Promising Young Woman couldn’t care less. Fennell’s first feature wants to stick it to the man, and her directorial debut is all-the-better for it. Even if this year of film weren’t so unorthodox, this movie would still be one of the year’s most impassioned filmmaking debuts, notably with Fennell promising big things in her future.
Following a series of traumatic incidents, our film follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a newly-30 woman who dropped out of medical school some time ago and continues to live at home and work at a coffee shop. She spends several nights targeting men at bars by pretending to be too inebriated to stand, and many of them try to take advantage of her state until she makes them pay for it. From the onset, as judging from the marketing materials, this character study examines the various men Cassie interacts with, which she keeps track of in a little notebook. But Fennell’s screenplay is often more interested in exploring the lingering trauma of its central character and the ways in which she pursues — with single-minded ambition — ways to track down and bring down predators who lurk in all corners of masculinity. But while this movie is often filled with darkly comedic moments, this remorseful, sullen character piece is often quite bitterly reflective and poignant in its soul-searching of its protagonist, as it provides a subversive, intelligent, and compact screenplay that continues to surprise and impress throughout its two-hour runtime.
Yet the dour plot and introspection of Promising Young Woman are often intriguingly counterbalanced by its brightly colored, almost carnivalesque presentation, which sometimes echoes the stunted emotional growth of the character. Our writer-director present an eye-catching, Technicolor display to lure in the viewer and make the sullen reality of its story and characters sink in deeper and harsher as we get to know more about Cassie’s past and personality. It’s certainly a tricky tonal balance to achieve, especially for a filmmaker’s first film, which is why it’s such a credit to Fennell that she successfully walks this tightrope, often with aplomb, without completely undermining the story’s core rawness. It’s also a great credit to Mulligan, who brings such charisma and captivation to this lead character, who also skillfully manages to walk over some of the movie’s shortcomings by bringing such enthralling life and urgency to the difficult journey Cassie ultimately takes.
Mulligan, who has so often been filled with resolve and burning indignation in several of her other past performances, clearly relishes this role. She has no problem bringing the right spunk and attitude to the performance, but in a script that can often focus so intently on the character’s martyrdom, Mulligan is also quite good at realizing Cassie’s emotional honesty without sacrificing the story’s efforts to tell a heightened, even sometimes broad revenge tale to a wide audience. Mulligan has often given great performances in a number of smaller, more intimate productions, and she brings that intense vulnerability to this role, while also providing the right bit of poppy wit and humor to make this character richly engaging. Furthermore, there’s a weariness, even sometimes a worldliness, to her performance that isn’t seen on the page but felt in several frames of this film. It’s a stunning juggling act that only a performer as skilled as this top-notch actress can pull off, but she’s been overdue for major projects like this one. Though Mulligan is great at communicating Fennell’s themes in engaging, cathartic, and even a few entertaining ways, the turbulent third act takes such a curious departure that she isn’t able to salvage. It’ll be hard to discuss it in more detail, but I’ll try.
Promising Young Woman is designed to be a divisive film, though I’ll be curious to see how people respond to the movie’s final 20 minutes. Without giving anything away, it makes a few choices that feel very calculated in their approach, though it ends the movie on an odd note. Even a few days after seeing it, I’m still not exactly sure where I stand with its conclusion. Fennell’s screenplay is so airtight and pointed that it’s obviously deliberate in the choices it makes. I appreciate what it’s going for, though I wonder if it might also undermine what made the film’s first two-thirds so enrapturing. I go back-and-forth on the decisions made in this part of the movie a lot, and I wonder if I’ll change my mind with time. But something about it feels…off to me. At least in this first watch. And I imagine other viewers might feel similarly.
These aren’t the film’s only troubles, notably, as it can comically balloon the male characters’ personalities (with supporting turns from Bo Burnham, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Adam Brody, and more) a little too much, to the point where it undercuts its closeness to reality, but what Promising Young Woman typically does right is far too interesting to ignore, and there’s so much more to this movie that I’d rather celebrate.
It’s not without its challenges, but Promising Young Woman is clearly a vehement and enthralling work of a new filmmaker eagerly looking to make her message heard, and it’s refreshing and richly inspiring to see a vision like this from such a major movie. It’s a film that’s looking to sting, and it leaves a lot to think about, and those are the type of movies that I value more often than not. The trailers might make it look like it has a sugary presentation, but it does have a bite. And while it doesn’t hit all its targets with pinpoint accuracy, it’s out for vengeance, and it’s going to inspire some passionate conversations in the days and months (and probably years) to come. This is the start of an exciting new filmmaking career for Emerald Fennell, and it should hopefully give Hollywood more proof than before that Mulligan is simply the real deal.
Will Ashton is a Pop Culture writer for CinemaBlend and one of the co-hosts of Cinemaholics. He also co-hosts the It Ain’t Ogre ‘Til It’s Ogre podcast and considers himself a “Garfield Enthusiast.” For now.