Movie Review: Promising Young Woman (2020)

When we first meet Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), she’s supposedly drunk in a club, getting taken home by a man she’s never met before. As you’ve probably seen in the trailers, she is not intoxicated and the man with ill intent is in for a bit of a surprise. When she snaps to and asks what he’s doing, the man is surprised. Wasn’t she supposed to be drunk? But, Cassie says, why should that make a difference? I should be aware of what’s going on, right? The men are adamant in their protests: I’m not an asshole!

Of course not. And I, a man, sit on the couch thinking the same thing. Thank you, Lord, that I am not like that asshole on screen. I’m different, right? This question is less important than wondering: what would I do if confronted about being complicit?

Jump cut to when she gets home after the encounter: she records the man’s name and a tally mark in her journal, next do dozens of others. Wait, did she kill that guy? Is this one of those movies?

I’ll admit, writer/director Emerald Fennell was an unfamiliar name to me before this. I’ve not watched Call the Midwife or Killing Eve. Her meteoric rise and incredible work ethic is impressive (even if she was, not surprisingly, helped by having wealthy, well-connected parents, like most people in the industry). She shot Promising Young Woman (her debut feature) in only 23 days.

What impresses me most about that is the very confident sense of style across the production design, cinematography, costuming, and the performances she gets out of her cast.

The lighting and production design give many scenes a neon-tinged hue, like it was filmed off the glare of a lollipop, as if we’re supposed to wonder if any of this is real or is it merely one woman’s revenge fantasy.

Everything is boldly overstated. The parents’ house is like a baby boomer grandma nightmare of old furniture, dog paintings, and hideous curtains. The clubs Cassie visits have bright red vinyl tufted seats and garish lighting. She works at an impossibly hip coffee shop.

It’s revenge fantasy with a lot of gritty realism mixed in. Before the viewer knows Cassie’s end game, there is stomach-churning behavior from the men she picks up. Like Sin City, some of the stylization offsets that. I think if Lynne Ramsey or Kathryn Bigelow had been given the same script, it would be a lot more horrifying and less entertaining. There are scenes that shouldn’t look the way they do – a singing montage in a pharmacy takes place in what appears to be a hip bar that sells cold medicine, but at no point does the viewer care that it looks like a fairytale. It’s just too fun to watch.

The costuming and makeup are so precise, like every character is hiding something under their thick facade of perfect eyeshadow and flawless outfits. Fennell wants to emphasize the emptiness of outward appearances by drawing attention to it and making it look beautiful. (“I want that nail polish!” my girlfriend exclaimed to me after one scene.) What’s lurking underneath? For some, they’re hiding wickedness; others, shame. One of the earliest shots in the movie is a hilarious crotch-level montage of dudes dancing in a club: flat asses, slim fit khakis, checkered shirts coming untucked. You know those guys. You’ve seen them. In fact, you probably know everyone in this movie. That’s the point.

For Cassie, the outfits and makeup are decoration on pure rage. In every scene, Mulligan somehow looks drenched in ennui while about to boil over with hatred at any possible second. I don’t know how she does it. There isn’t a single scene where she isn’t fascinating to watch.

But anger is always a secondary emotion, and Cassie is a very sad person. The film is as much about her grief as it is about her anger. When she receives a shocking revelation, Fennell follows her in a single shot across a field as tears stream down her face. At no point do we forget her rage even as she weeps. Others will move on for tragedy, but we don’t doubt that Cassie won’t.

What I find so striking about this movie is it feels like the first fully-realized work that acknowledges American Millennials aren’t young twenty-somethings anymore. We’re in our early 30s. Some of us became what we were supposed to be: rich, beautiful, successful, 2.5 children but still a perfect body (Alison Brie brings so much fullness to a character who seems so empty inside. She might be my favorite of the many small side roles). Others did not “arrive” like we were told we would. Cassie dropped out of med school and lives with her parents. Her best friend, consumed by trauma, did not make it at all. When Cassie finally opens up about her, we get the most emotionally resonant moment of the film as she clearly lays out for an abuser the full consequences of sexual assault and the ensuing trauma.

Mulligan isn’t the only one who shines. Bo Burnham is perfectly cast as the boyish and charming doctor who asks her out.  There’s an impressive lineup of other actors whose roles are basically cameos but very good ones. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, of McLovin fame, is particularly good, snorting coke and mansplaining David Foster Wallace. Alfred Molina has a brief but soulful appearance. If it weren’t for Mulligan, all of them would be scene stealers.

I do think Fennell demonstrates some youth with a few style choices, notably some distracting music cues (please, please stop using Tristan und Isolde in ironic moments. Find a different piece). We also don’t need big roman numerals on screen to tell us what stage of Cassie’s epic revenge plan is next. It’s odd for a movie that trusts its audience otherwise.

(N.B. in addition to the meticulous set design, you’re also going to notice lots of center frame subjects throughout the film. I think I’m at the point where Wes Anderson is such a colossal influence that filmmakers are inspired by him, not aping him, and that’s not bothersome anymore. It’s just the way it is. She puts an original spin on her influences.)

I don’t know enough about the trajectory of film or discourse to say whether or not this movie will feel like a cultural milestone for years to come, dealing with a very important issue, or a dated piece of pop culture that doesn’t age well. To its credit, it’s too strong of a statement to end up as anything else.

In conclusion, it’s hard to imagine a more self-assured or bombastic debut film. I’m fully on board with Emerald Fennell getting big budget responsibilities on tent poles (she’s just officially signed onto the DCEU), and maybe she’ll enlist her friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but it would probably be even more of a gift to us all if she keeps making eye-popping original stuff like this one.