Promising Young Woman is a dark comedy released in December 2020, which, it seems, largely flew under the radar. Like many recent releases, this one was overshadowed by the fact that there’s a raging pandemic going on, and people rarely visit the cinema anymore. I won’t hold it against you if you haven’t even heard of the film until now, never mind seen it – but here’s why you should.
( I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, as this film’s strength is in its exceptional element of surprise)
Promising Young Woman was written, directed and produced by Emerald Fennell, in her feature directorial debut, and co-produced by Margot Robbie. Perhaps that’s why there are so many scenes that seem to call up memories of Robbie’s iconic Harley Quinn character. The film, with its all-star cast including Carey Mulligan, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge and Laverne Cox follows a woman who as she takes an unusual style of revenge against predatory men, and has already received a lot of positive feedback from critics.
Mulligan performs exceptionally well in the starring role of Cassandra (a 30-year old, single woman and med- school dropout, living with her parents), as she leaves no man standing on her mission to avenge every woman who’s ever been the victim of a creepy and opportunistic scumbag. Her withering gaze and unwavering fearlessness is both admirable and unbelievable, until we learn more about its root – deep-seated trauma. The role seems like an extremely tough one to pull off, but Mulligan gets it right, allowing audiences to sympathise, even if they struggle to relate.
As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that it’s more than just a revenge story with a bomb soundtrack – It’s an analysis of the effects of trauma and a critique of the society we live in. Watching Cassandra as she boldly enters spaces that strike fear in most women, and which we normally try to avoid at all costs raises a kind of anxiety in its female viewers that male audiences may not quite be able to grasp and appreciate. Is she insane? A sociopath without fear of the consequences of her actions? Or is she merely so damaged by the past that she on longer cares what the outcome may be, as long as she makes a few sleazy men feel preyed upon in the way women so often do?
The film’s handling of the topic of sexual predation is unique, making it all that much more intriguing. Perhaps only outdone but the way the film seems to span genres and keep viewers on their toes. The plot twists are extraordinary in their frequency and heft . There are points at which one isn’t quite sure if they’re watching a thriller or a romantic comedy, and the plot’s ability to surprise throughout the film is one of its most outstanding features.
It does, however, leave us with a lot of questions. Some of the film’s allusions go without further explanation, leaving audiences to wonder if the red marks in her thick list of male victims have any significance, or if she simply picked up a different pen by mistake – the latter seems unlikely.
Without revealing too much about how Promising Young Woman ends, I feel it must be said that it’s the film’s strongest moment. The film closes with a jarring crescendo that left me dumbstruck – both satisfied and shocked –and feeling a strange kind of way that I struggle to explain. I wanted to say that I loved it, and hated it at the same time. In retrospect, many of the things that bothered me while I was watching Promising Young Woman turned out to be the film’s best qualities
Whatever the case, I didn’t feel like I had wasted my time watching this film, and that’s perhaps the greatest praise I could give it.