Every now and then, there comes a movie which gathers very divisive reactions. Last year there was Joker, a movie that prompted widespread controversy and worries it would promote real-life violence, and a couple of years ago, there was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a movie that huge critical and audience acclaim, yet controversy for it’s handling of racial themes.
And now, in 2021, we have Promising Young Woman.
The psychological thriller film is directed by Emerald Fennell, a writer and actor, most famously known for her recurring role as Camila Shand in the Netflix drama series, The Crown, as well as being the show-runner for the second season of the BBC America breakthrough hit, Killing Eve (writing 6 episodes of that season). With the exception of a short film, this is Fennell’s first foray in the film world, and as a directional debut, it’s pretty damn exceptional.
The centres on the young woman of the title, Cassie Thomas (portrayed by Carey Mulligan), a 29-year-old who works in a coffee shop and still lives with her parents. At night, she leads a double life as a secret vigilante, who goes to bars or clubs and pretends to be intoxicated and waits to see if she will be preyed upon by a seemingly “nice guy”.
So, as you can tell from the premise alone, the film discusses a lot of themes and ideas very prevalent in our society, in particular themes of consent and rape, perfect for the #Metoo inspired era we are in now. However, that is just the beginning, because, as the film unfolds, the film takes us down a path that many won’t expect.
It is soon revealed that Cassie wasn’t always like this – she was once a “Promising Young Woman”, an ambitious, cheerful and determined young woman, who was actually on set to become a doctor before a traumatic event led to dropping out of school. We meet her 10 years after this event, in which she has become a cynical and bitter young woman still stuck in the past. However, this may all change after the arrival of the charming surgeon (and Cassie’s former classmate), Ryan (Bo Burnham), who could possibly break Cassie out of her old funk.
Throughout her constantly witty and inventive script, Fennell is never interested in following the usual beats and tropes of typical, Hollywood movies. In many ways, the film is like Three Billboards in how it constantly subverts our expectations – we begin to constantly change our minds (both in a good or bad way) on the central characters, and we are regularly surprised by all the brilliantly out-of-nowhere plot twists.
One of the most recognisable plot twists that will definitely leave an impact for pretty much every audience member is the shocking ending. The last 15 minutes has already proven to be quite divisive, and many moviegoers will leave the film either extremely disappointed or extremely satisfied. For me, however, the ending was indeed, extremely satisfying and I loved it, but it’s definitely a love-it-or-hate-it moment.
Other than that the twists, the script is also great for it’s bonkers genre experimentation. At first, the film is social thriller, centring on exploring “important” issues in our society, and then it somehow manages to turn into a 90s style romantic comedy, in which our flawed, guarded lead heroine (Cassie) is somehow melted by our dashing, charming male lead (Ryan). But, then, somehow, Fennell is able to turn the last act into a crazy, dramatic finale that feels like it comes out of a rape/revenge film or even a exploitation flick.
But, all this is kept afloat by the brilliant direction by Fennell. Despite the fact that this is her first film, she comes with an established and eye-popping visual aesthetic that feels way beyond her years. Mostly every shot is filled to the brim with bright colours, particularly a lot of pinks and reds, and it has absolutely immaculate production design.
Not only that, but to add to that the soundtrack is absolutely killer. The music is very peculiar – there are remixed, sometimes acoustic versions of pop tunes, including “Toxic”, “It’s Raining Men” and “Angel of the Morning”. There’s even a use of Paris Hilton’s (actually really great) song, “Stars are Blind”, in which Fennell uses completely non-ironically for a romantic, heartfelt montage.
All this makes you feel like you’re watching a “woman’s picture”, a female take (made for women and by women) on the social thriller, a genre previously mainly occupied by male filmmakers, particularly Bong Joon-ho and Jordan Peele. The visual style also purely makes the film very entertaining – Fennell is able to turn the film filled with “important” and “timely” messages into a thrilling and cinematic popcorn flick.
But, in many ways, the film belongs to Carey Mulligan. The 35-year-old actress has always been on the verge of stardom over the past decade, but this could be her turning point. The performance, in which she has to play a variety of emotions (including joyous, depressed, empty, angry and many more), feels reminiscent of Margot Robbie’s barnstorming performance in “I, Tonya” 3 years ago, in which it feels like an actress has finally “arrived” on the scene. If her performance isn’t at least nominated at this year’s Oscars, it will be a real shame.
Other than Mulligan, the film is filled with supporting cameos and performances, all of which are a bit hit-or-miss. Burnham is great, and there are some other solid performances, particularly by Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Laverne Cox and Alfred Molina. Some other performances, however, feel a little bit like missed opportunities, particularly the underwhelming use of Jennifer Coolidge and Molly Shannon.
The film is definitely not for everyone – it’s fiercely cynical and angry tone, as well as the whiplash-inducing tonal changes, will definitely leave people divided. However, if you’re looking for something very different and very eye-catching, you should definitely check out “Promising Young Woman”. Actually, even if you aren’t looking for that, it’s definitely still worth watching, just for the conversation it’s bound to provoke. Nevertheless, I really loved it.