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Review: Promising Young Woman (2020)

Promising Young Woman (2020)

Directed by: Emerald Fennell

Premise: Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is a medical school dropout who obsesses over the suicide of her best friend, following that woman’s sexual assault by a male classmate. Cassie goes to bars and feigns inebriation to lure men into exposing their ill-intentions.

What Works: Promising Young Woman is a black comedy in the vein of American Psycho and Fight Club. It combines elements of a psychological thriller with a witty sense of humor and the results are frequently unsettling. The movie is about men’s predation on women and the gender politics of sexuality and culpability. Although the movie is didactic, the incisive comedy makes the picture’s political agenda palatable. Promising Young Woman has a unique production design. The costumes and sets are often bright with strong colors that contrast with the dark subject matter; the visual dissonance matches the pitch of the story. Carey Mulligan’s performance is in touch with that tension. Her performance is extraordinary in the way it assimilates all the different things she’s required to do: interrogating would-be attackers with withering disdain, bantering with a coworker and a love interest, mourning her late friend and raging against the injustices that drove her to suicide. The film pulls Mulligan in a lot of different directions and the extent to which Promising Young Woman succeeds is largely due to her performance.

What Doesn’t: As good as Mulligan is and as much as her performance pins the different parts of the film together, Promising Young Woman is frequently disjointed. The story has several different concepts competing for attention. Cassie is introduced trolling the bar scene for men of ill-intent.  This behavior isn’t followed to any logical or meaningful end; with each mark she drops the drunken act and soberly confronts the would-be attacker but there’s no tangible endgame to her ploys. The bar scenes are mostly set aside as Cassie goes after the people involved in her friend’s death but she doesn’t appear to have a master plan. Promising Young Woman often feels episodic with many scenes isolated from the ones before or after it; the middle of the film lacks a sense of escalation and the plot frequently relies on coincidences. The film also underwhelms as a polemic. Promising Young Woman is a rape-revenge picture and films in this genre like Ms. 45 or Hard Candy are typically about how sexual assault debases everyone involved. Promising Young Woman points in that direction, but the filmmakers do not commit to the madness. Cassie’s behavior becomes increasingly risky and erratic but the filmmakers don’t entertain the moral implications of what she’s doing and the film’s political message is both hollow and muddled in a way that suggests confusion instead of ambiguity.

Bottom Line: Promising Young Woman is an uneven film. Parts of it are extraordinary, especially Carey Mulligan’s performance, but the film’s sexual politics are mostly superficial and Promising Young Woman offers little that is challenging or revelatory.

Episode: #841 (February 28, 2021)