Revenge is a dish best served cold and has a long memory and list of names to match. Promising Young Woman begins with the overlay of Charli XCX’s ‘Boys‘ at a neon light-lit club. Three men are at the bar and spot Cassandra/”Cassie” (Carey Mulligan) who appears to be in a drunken daze on a couch. They speak amongst themselves, trying to interpolate her history and blaming her for her current state. Jerry (Adam Brody) takes it upon himself to portray himself as the knight in shining armor and offers her a ride home. Instead, he takes her back to his apartment, and while he has nefarious ideas, Cassandra turns this situation on its head and reveals she was sober the entire time.
Promising Young Woman is an inventive and poignant excoriation of the male gaze, rape culture, and a society that is complicit in turning a blind eye to it. It means for the audience to be placed in a ball of discomfort like Anthony Willis‘s eerie orchestral interpolation of Britney Spears‘ ‘Toxic.’ The scary thing about the opening scene is because it could occur on a typical Saturday night in any big city. In this world, the production design is vital to the overall story. Everything down to Cassandra’s nail polish feels like bits of candy. The neighborhood almost feels a bit too sterile and neat during the daytime. As duality shows, some things appear to be sweet on the outside, but poison on the inside – whether this is Cassandra herself or the lighting and painting of rooms that exist within the ugliness of the world.
Director/Writer Emerald Fennell‘s story and direction is a critique of society through the eyes of a female protagonist. Instances happen in the film, such as catcalling or instances of road rage that may seem small in contrast to the face-to-face dangers that Cassandra faces. The men that try to coherence her to do things even though she’s perceived to be inebriated present themselves in different forms. “I’m a nice guy.” “I believe in feminism. “It’s still early. Do you have to go home?” When these men are caught red-handed, they are confronted with their intentions. They either go with insults, but cower in fear over the potential of getting a scarlet letter, but not harming someone. All these scenes serve importance, whether Cassandra displays unbridled rage or an inquisitive verbal takedown.
While Cassandra’s character is presented as a savvy, avenging angel that disarms one-track-minded men by night, Fennell also shows Cassandra’s complexities as we learn more about her history. She’s a former med school student who had a bright future that dropped out suddenly because of something terrible that happens. She lives with her parents Stanley and Susan (Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge) who pressure her to get on with her life and return to the daughter they knew before. But we’re never the same after a tragedy, right? There’s a question of how long is too long to dwell on something – even if you see that problem is beyond your own orbit.
Everything comes to a screeching halt when Ryan (Bo Burnham) comes into the coffee shop. He’s both a reminder of what her promising medical career could be and a potential love interest. Then there’s an internal struggle within Cassandra – does she continue on her rightful quest to disarm the patriarchal deception or does she allow herself to fall for this guy? The movie also plays with tone – going from a drama to a blissful rom-com just as quick as Roman numerals flash on the screen. This could seem a bit jarring, but there is a method to the madness. When you expect the story to fall at the feet of conventional plot threads, it zags into something different. PYW also shows an entertaining cast comprised of actors such as Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, Alison Brie, Alfred Molina, and Molly Shannon. Cassandra continues on her path, revisiting the past and trying to cope in the present. Each character, no matter how short their screen time, is vital to us learning what happened and in the shaping of her overall character arch.
Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Cassandra is nothing short of multi-layered brilliance. She carries unwavering confidence within herself as she confronts these men in situations where they seem to have the upper hand. There’s also a sadness within herself that you can feel this tragedy has significantly altered the course of her life. Why does a world exist where a woman has to be in a state of rebellion for survival? It begs the question, can happiness and love within a world where there are so many ulterior motives? It’s a hard realization that this film confronts the viewer in that that women have to cast their standards aside where men don’t have to elevate themselves to reach.
As the movie makes its definitive ending statement, it will divide some viewers because of the sudden bluntness of its nature. For some, it may serve as a manifestation of our actual world and how particular things come to get a sense of justice. For others, it may be off-putting to what the movie reveals itself to be within the first two acts. Promising Young Woman has comedic notes to it regarding the heavy themes it explores, but it also is a very creative expose of the real-life plights that women face daily.
Photo Credit: Focus Features