“Promising Young Woman” Movie Review


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     Not since the likes of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” have we seen a feature directing debut as impactful and attention grabbing as Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman”.  Not that the “Pulp Fiction” director’s initial offering shares anything in common with Fennell’s, though there are notable similarities with “Kill Bill”, but everything from the visuals to the story and performances indicate a rare talent whose cinematic future is certain to be on the upswing.  “Promising Young Woman” ups the ante on the traditional female revenge thriller and dares to defy the common tropes within the genre as the lead character, fueled by a stunning performance courtesy of Carey Mulligan, systematically breaks down the barriers between a group of affluent wrongdoers and the street justice they clearly deserve.

     An opening sequence features a trio of young men discussing their skewed views of woman as they laugh and grunt through what appears to be a trip to the bar after work.  Fennell includes a montage of many of these guys gyrating on the bar’s dance floor, focusing on the oversized girth of their midsections as they plot the next move in their never ending quest of actually having a woman pay attention to them.  This particularly cocky group, comprised of Jerry (Adam Brody), Jim (Ray Nicholson), and Paul (Sam Richardson), are eying a lone woman sitting on a couch in the back of the main room.  She can barely keep her head up and seems to be on the verge of passing out.  As is the case in many of these situations, Jerry decides to go over and see if she’s “ok”, as his buddies look on knowing full well of his nefarious intentions.

     An Uber ride that is said to be a chivalrous good deed, quickly morphs into a change of destination, as Jerry has the driver go to his apartment instead.  The woman, Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), seems to be oblivious, though the driver appears more concerned of the growing possibility she may throw up in the car than anything else.  We then cut to Jerry’s apartment where he’s pouring drinks, a large one for her - a small one for him, as he begins to set the table for his next move.  As he kisses her, we can see the encounter is completely one sided.  There’s no movement or energy coming from Cassandra.  She’s completely emotionless.  Still suffering from the apparent effects of severe alcohol intoxication.

     They move to the bedroom at Cassandra’s request to lay down.  Jerry sees this as an opportunity to strike and continues his onslaught of sexual maneuvering as he works his way down to her skirt.  But suddenly, he hears her voice.  “What are you doing Jerry?”  He looks up from his position between her legs.  “I said, what are you doing?”.  In horror, Jerry realizes Cassandra is sober, completely focused, and now really pissed off.  The next scene sees Cassandra adding Jerry to an ongoing list of men she has presumably duped into thinking she was their next drunken victim to take advantage of, though we never see what actually transpires after her reveal.  What does she do to these men once they realize they’ve been had?

     Cassandra has just turned 30 years old.  She stills lives with her parents, who comically give her luggage for her birthday so as to maybe give a hint that it’s time to move out on her own.  We learn some years ago she dropped out of medical school and now works at a coffee shop, delivering the kind of work performance that would typically see her unemployed if not for her boss and friend, Gail (Laverne Cox).  It’s a seemingly empty and misguided existence for someone who is, shall we say, “Promising”.  But don’t mistake her outward malaise as a person who lacks a plan.

     “Promising Young Woman” follows Cassandra as she plots to teach a lesson to those involved in the cover up of an incident that happened to a close friend while in college.  A story no doubt inspired, in part, by the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings in 2018 which brought forth accusations of a drunken high school aged romp that included alleged sexual misconduct with Christine Blasey Ford.  Fennell delineates these  encounters with a roman numeral on screen as to chronicle the importance of each person’s culpability that will ultimately lead to the perpetrator himself. 

  A slimy attorney, a crooked college dean, and enabling friends all make the list, as Cassandra’s approach to each them is so well thought out, you won’t be able to predict any of the outcomes.  No, this isn’t some horror film gore fest.  Fennell respects this character too much to have her concoct some low brow scheme that includes torture or murder.  Instead, Cassandra remains smart and poised throughout, even when in the face of reliving the trauma of her past and the intense survivor’s guilt that occupies her mind each and every day.

     With Carey Mulligan delivering the best performance of her career, Fennell ensures she is surrounded by a long list of notable character acting talents, who even in small cameo appearances help bring life to the story.  Whether it’s Jennifer Coolidge playing against type as Cassendra’s concerned mother, Susan, or Christopher Mintz-Plasse showing up as a coked out nerdy sexual predator who finds himself on the wrong page of Cassandra’s lengthy list, the performances support the story in a way that invigorates practically every frame.  

     Even Cassandra’s would be love interest, Neil (Bo Burnham), a pediatric surgeon of whom she went to medical school with, ropes us in as exactly the kind of person who can pull Cassandra out of the nightmarish abyss of which she lives.  The real question is whether his appeal for a normal life will be enough to derail her all consuming quest to expose the sordid truth behind a group of people who will do anything to ensure it remains in the past. GRADE: A