Explosive Promising Young Woman an Infuriating Work of Genius
Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is the year’s most explosively shocking and forcefully controversial debut. It is also one of its best films. This exhilarating foray into sexism, rape culture, misogyny, male privilege and all of the various institutions who see it in their collective best interests to turn a blind eye to all of it and more is as forcefully thought-provoking as dramas like this can get. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, Fennell delivering a one-of-a-kind human spectacle I won’t soon forget.
Keeping viewers continually on their toes is Carey Mulligan. The talented An Education, Shame and Wildlife star unleashes the performance of a lifetime. Portraying former medical student turned barista Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas, the actress is a ferocious firebrand oozing a mixture of strength, resilience, indifference and fragility that’s almost indescribable in its combustible complexity. Mulligan gives herself over to Fennell’s masterful screenplay body and soul, every step that character takes instantly believable no matter how strange, selfish or ill-conceived as they may initially appear.
It is unavoidable that the central discourse surrounding the film will be in regards to its climactic act. While not to get into any spoilers, it is still easy to say this is for good reason. Love what Fennell has come up with or hate it with every fiber of your being, this ending will provoke all sorts of heated discussions for an exceedingly long time to come. This is the type of finale that survivors of sexual violence will passionately argue about, and no matter what side of the conversation they come down on I can’t help believe all of them will be right and none of them wrong.
I rarely get personal in my reviews. It’s just not my way. With that caveat, what I will admit to is that, as an assault survivor myself, this climax stopped my breath cold and spawned instant, outraged tears. But as upset as what Fennell does made me, I also applauded the clear-minded audacity of where she took things. This isn’t a place of comfort. As ingenious as Cassie might be her cleverness is both comforting and enraging in almost equal measure.
And what sort of tale spawns a finale this irritably volatile? As Cassie approaches 30 years of age, she appears to be walking through her life with a crooked smile and sports an acid tongue. Still living at home with her parents Stanley (Clancy Brown) and Susan (Jennifer Coolidge), she works at a local coffee shop and is best friends with her boss Gail (Laverne Cox). Not one to get close to people, especially men, Cassie lets her guard down after running into pediatrician Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate who fondly remembers her from their days in medical school together.
But this is all a façade. For reasons she refuses to disclose to anyone, Cassie goes out to various nightclubs around town practically every evening. She dresses just scantily enough to draw attention but not quite enough to be labeled a tart, feigning to be drunk as she waits for “some nice man” to make sure she’s doing okay. Those that do the right thing, those who don’t take any sort of advantage, that’s where her game ends. But those who aren’t so gentlemanly? Who view Cassie as a sex object to appease their carnal needs? They don’t get off so lucky, each certain to rue the day they ever crossed her path.
If this was all that was on Fennell’s mind, Promising Young Woman would already have planted all seeds it needs to blossom into a memorably satirical black comedy about misogyny and male privilege. But the filmmaker’s targets aren’t always who you think they are going to be. She holds equally accountable fellow women who for whatever reason lend their support to the men accused of assault instead of the women tearfully begging for someone to listen to what they have to say. No prisoners are taken at any point, each move Cassie makes a delicate precursor to a hidden destination where she will get her revenge for past wrongs no matter what the consequences of doing so might prove to be.
I’m holding a great deal back as I don’t want to inadvertently reveal any of the more insidious tricks Fennell attempts to play. I do know that the effect all of this had on me was so all-encompassing by the time the film ended I was visibly shivering. I wanted to throw things at the screen. I also wanted to give everyone who made the picture an appreciatively massive hug.
Promising Young Woman was not an easy film for me to watch. I can’t imagine anyone who gives it a look shrugging it off nonchalantly as if what it is saying is no big deal or anything to get all that worked up about one way or the other. Fennell has delivered a gut-wrenching, must-see work of infuriated genius, and as painful as portions of it were for me to experience, I’d happily go through the trauma of additional viewings as soon as the opportunity to do so arises.
Film Rating: 4 (out of 4)