Every Friday night, med school dropout Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) gets made up, heads to a club and drinks until her liver hits the picket line. And every Friday night, without fail, a leering chauvinist finds Cassie slumped over a table or crumpled in a booth, and takes her to his apartment, where she springs the trap: She reveals that she’s sober, not blotto, and she’s so righteously offended by the attempted date rape that she jots the man’s name in a book and heads off on her merry way with a self-satisfied smile on her face.
Cue the sound of air let out of a balloon. In Promising Young Woman, the first feature from Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, vengeance is sweet and anodyne: Comeuppance for perverts takes the form of smug rebuke, as if Cassie is disappointed, but not shocked, at their misogyny rather than justifiably and violently provoked by it. Fennell borrows the setup of revenge cinema and for a while maintains the deception: Promising Young Woman opens as Cassie, out on the prowl and drunk as a lord, ends up in a car with nice guy Jerry (Adam Brody, the first cameo of many by young men known for playing Nice Guys), who switches gears on niceness once they’re at his place and slips off her underwear as she protests.
Here, Cassie coolly shifts into reprisal mode and Fennell cuts to her strolling down the street with a canary smile at her lips, hot dog in hand, ketchup staining her arm red with justice. It’s murder! Isn’t it? Cassie isn’t a killer, actually, just bereaved and weighed down by the baggage of her best friend Nina’s suicide: After getting raped by a popular classmate, Nina sank into despondency and eventually took her own life. Years later it isn’t blood Cassie’s after. It’s humiliation, though frankly her plan doesn’t make much sense: Pulling a man’s card when he has drinks in his gut and lines of coke up his nose seems like a dangerous idea despite Cassie’s sobriety. It’s such a bad idea that the film would make more sense if her plan was to massacre the dimwitted creeps she picks up instead of telling them off.
Denying the revenge genre’s most basic expectation reads like subversion—retribution, but make it anticlimactic. Maybe Fennell, who also wrote the screenplay, wants the satisfaction of saying things to society’s Jerrys (that society’s Jerrys aren’t usually told) even more than the satisfaction of butchering them. Promising Young Woman is her apparatus for voicing aloud what culture critics and journalists have put into digital ink, documenting rape culture’s reach for ages, about male entitlement, toxic masculinity, and the social mores that put greater value on a man’s future than a woman’s life. The film savages old defenses used to protect Steubenville rapists, Brock Turner, and Owen Labrie from richly deserved jail time: Pearl-clutching laments over their futures, their reputations, their youth. They’re just kids! Who among us didn’t do sex crimes in our salad days?
The trouble with Fennell’s approach, apart from being a king bummer for anybody expecting a riff on I Spit On Your Grave, is that it drags her wonderful subtext to the surface. Her story is built on a foundation of buzzwords and headlines, a bit of a surprise given Fennell’s facility for sharp plotting and sharper dialogue: Promising Young Woman clocks in at nearly two hours but feels about 30 minutes shorter thanks to her shrewd structure and uptempo pace. If the substance is thin and the logic lacking, at least the film has momentum. But to what end, and what moral center? Cassie proves herself awful in her own unique way along her lonely path to avengement. She encourages an old pal to get sloshed over lunch, then leaves her alone in a hotel with a man she hired for a dark, unannounced purpose, and later semi-abducts a teenage girl to dangle her whereabouts in front of the school Dean (Connie Britton), who let Nina’s rapist off the hook, as punishment for her complicity.
Promising Young Woman presents moments like these with a wink and a grin as if they’re innately blackly humorous on their own merits. They aren’t. The film just assumes they are while neglecting serious consideration of how Cassie’s mission clangs against her methods: She’s better than the dude bros she roofies in the climax, but she isn’t good, and Fennell either fails or elects not to process the effect of Cassie’s quest on her humanity. Nina’s death corroded her soul. A budding relationship with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a pediatrician and former fellow student, nearly wipes that damage clean, but of course he has his own dirty laundry to air, too. The back and forth between revenge and redemption feels like proof of uncertainty more than a critical component of Fennell’s thesis, or worse, a lazily caustic tool for avoiding the consequences of her protagonist’s actions altogether.
This is a shame, because Fennell has promise that she’s in the middle of realizing thanks to her wonderful television work and, to her credit, her solid direction here. It’s the thought put into the writing that leads Promising Young Woman astray: The movie knows what it’s about, but waffles over how to be about it. The ferocity Mulligan funnels into her performance hints at the story that could’ve been—merciless, cool and vividly stylized. But her ruthlessness, her “no fucks to give” demeanor, isn’t matched by the picture surrounding her. She realizes her promise as Fennell struggles with her own.
Director: Emerald Fennell
Writer: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Chris Lowell, Connie Britton, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Laverne Cox, Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Alfred Molina, Max Greenfield, Molly Shannon
Release Date: December 25, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.