Film review by Jason Day of Promising Young Woman (2020), the revenge thriller starring Carey Mulligan as a former medical student seeking payback on the ‘nice young men’ who ‘help’ inebriated women with a view to having sex with them whilst they are unconscious. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell.
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Cassie (Carey Mulligan) works in a coffee shop by day, largely ignoring her customers much to the consternation of her otherwise friendly and accommodating boss (Laverne Cox). By night, she has a very different persona. She cruises bars and clubs and fakes being the sort of inebriated, single woman who, nice young men ‘rescue’ in order to have sex with when there is little in the way of consent.
They soon find out that Cassie, far from being drunk, is stone sold sober and is out to show them a lesson based on a tragic past event with her deceased friend Nina.
Following a chance encounter, Cassie’s quest for vengeance ramps up a few levels.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
They put themselves in danger, girls like that. If they’re not careful someone’s gonna take advantage, especially the kinda guys in this club.”Paul (Sam Richardson) helps open Promising Young Woman.
INT. SWEET SIXTEEN’S DANCEFLOOR – NIGHT
A super-depressing dancefloor on a Thursday night. 2-For-1 shots and a sticky floor. The kind of last-resort place people end up after work having accidentally nailed ten “just one” drinks.
A bored DJ plays the DROELOE remix of “Boys” by Charlie XCX, while the thin and kind of tragic crowd dances.
We linger on the men dancing in particular, their bodies, the sweat running down their backs as they grind and thrust. The slow-mo, the lascivious pan-up, the sort of erotic gaze normally reserved for oiled-up music-video hotties. Except we’re looking at regular dudes in chinos with absolutely no dancing ability.
BTW, if at this point you aren’t following and/or need to ‘bone up’ on the screenwriting format, check out the actual thing on the Focus Features website.
As opening shots for a movie go, even for one as talked about, highly anticipated and controversial as Promising Young Woman, this one goes the distance. As opening text in a screenplay goes, I’m just glad as a gay man I’m not the target demographic in writer Fennell’s sometimes myopic sights.
Focusing on the gyrating crotches and sweaty shirts of the multitude of men to be found in any club, the viewer is up close and uncomfortably personal with ‘that part’ of a man’s body that can provide as much pain as it can pleasure.
Whether one is straight or gay, man or woman or whichever, I guarantee you will have an opinion on Promising Young Woman. I don’t want to get into a crass ‘Team Cassie’ / ‘Team Bloke’ scenario, but whilst I admire much about this movie, the professionals behind it and the important conversations around it, I have issues with the film.
First I’d like to say that this opinion, surprising to me as anyone else, comes from someone who has been hugely excited about watching Promising Young Woman. Having waited since last year when the movie was first trailed, I have been equally envious of lucky US audiences who, with different Covid-restrictions, were able to see this theatrically.
So I feel doubly disappointed with the finished result; disappointed at it and myself for – yet again! – getting worked up about a movie based on the trailer and wider gossip about it.
It’s interesting to reflect here about how the external environment can impact people’s perceptions of them. Would Promising Young Woman, coming out at a time such as ours when conversations about gender equality, following the #MeToo movement (at its height in 2017) if it had been released years ago or even in the future, generate such a colossal buzz?
Are we to quick to gloss over a movie’s inherent flaws because it fits into or highlights particular, pressing societal problems? Let me explain ‘my issues’.
There are serious lapses in sense throughout this movie. Firstly, Cassie places herself in considerable danger with the “nice young men” she picks up; is she able to defend herself physically? Has she taken self-defence classes to prepare her for her extraordinary justice journey of being alone with drunk, aggressive and sexually charged men? She does appear to use the services of a (token Eastern/Central European) heavy when visiting Molina’s distressed lawyer, but it’s difficult to judge whether he is always lurking outside.
More than once I thought how convenient it was that, of the men we see her setting up (judging by the tally list in her notebook, there have been many more) they immediately cease their advances when Cassie miraculously sobers up and confronts them.
The lack of logic continues when Cassie – posing as someone else applying to resume her medical studies – confronts the Dean of her alma mater about the rape of her deceased friend. The Dean, an intelligent woman presumably steeped in the procedures and protocol of her employer, reveals personal details about a years old student disciplinary case with a complete stranger. Er, never heard of consent or disclosure rules?!
It begs the question that, if Cassie is acting in such a machiavellian manner and wants evidence of past misdeeds, why not break into the Dean’s office, grab the records of the investigation and hand them to the police?
If writer Fennell’s objective is to use the Cassie character as a device to help audiences sit up and take notice about the rape and sexual abuse of women, why make Cassie so unsympathetic?
I appreciate that making her less than 100% perfect shows her as a three-dimensional human helps us identify with her, but some of her actions are reprehensible. I found myself being pushed away from supporting her and questioning her motives and the point of the film.
As an example, for the conclusion of the Dean scene, she leads the Dean to believe she has kidnapped her underage, impressionable but very pretty daughter in the room previously inhabited by her friend’s rapist. The Dean, understandably but rather unconvincingly (“Tell me what room she is in you…sociopath!”), hits the roof.
This is a wicked act but is presented as a cool and amusingly ironic way for Cassie to prove her point, as she calmly removes her chewing gum and sticks it underneath the Dean’s desk.
Also, her boozy lunch with former ‘gal pal’ Madison follows suit here. She sets her up to believe she too has been raped by a “nice young man” and keeps her hanging on for days before confirming nothing happened, even though the woman is going out of her mind.
OK, she doesn’t like Madison and blames her for not supporting her and her friend Nina, but why hurt a fellow woman by using presumed rape as the weapon? Again, I really struggled to keep at the forefront of my mind that Cassie is a woman deeply hurt by past events, thinking instead (although I tried so hard not to!) that she is unbalanced, cold and mendacious.
Why the conventional romance angle with the too-sweet doctor? Is this to show Carrie is ‘normal’ and capable of forming a ‘normal’ relationship, despite her revenge-campaign? What is the ‘normal’ man? The doctor appears to be good, reliable and trustworthy and only very gently pushes his advantage after a date in which Cassie is the dominant partner, asking him to join him in his apartment.
He’s presented as not being at all like the men Cassie meets in bars and clubs, who uniformly want sex with inebriated women, who’d never lower himself to rape a girl until Cassie views some horrifying video footage of Nina’s attack.
I wasn’t necessarily expecting a full-on ‘message movie,’ but by sensationalising and ‘tabloidising’ sexual consent, rape and the lack of justice for many affected women, I felt the filmmakers were straying from the point (one of the posters advertises the movie with the salacious tag-line ‘Take her home and take your chances’). For me, Promising Young Woman is a promising film that, like Cassie, doesn’t graduate with honours. It veers too broadly between frivolity and fact.
There’s no fault, however, with the acting which is top-notch throughout even with the smaller roles. From the tiny, passive-aggressive turns from Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown as her wanna-be middle-class parents with a home with faux Palace of Versaille interiors, Molly Shannon (crazy Val in TV’s Will & Grace) to Bo Burnham as Cassies’ doctor-beau Cassie dates (coincidentally, he was a student with her at med school), Fennell knows how to get a good turn from her actors.
Fennell also puts in a cameo appearance as a YouTubing make-up adviser, who helps Cassie achieve the perfect ‘blow-job’ lips.
Obviously, it is all eyes on Carey and this is an incredible performance. She’s been involved with some critical flack about this movie, with esteemed Variety critic Dennis Harvey targeted for obsolescence at one point when he (in my opinion, at least) seemed to backtrack a bit and tripped over his words. She is, as I have written previously, one of Britain’s stellar cinematic talents, always worth watching and it is to her credit that even with the ambiguities and problems I had with the script, she is always watchable as Cassie. You dare not take your eyes or ears off her. She is nominated for a number of major movie awards this year, including an Oscar for Best Actress.
Cast & credits
Director: Emerald Fennell.
Producers: Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Emerald Fennell, Ashley Fox, Josey McNamara, Margot Robbie.
Writer: Emerald Fennell.
Camera: Benjamin Kracun.
Music: Anthony Willis.
Sets: Michael Perry.
Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Chris Lowell, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Christipher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, Alfred Molina, Molly Shannon, Emerald Fennell.