Producers: Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara, Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning and Ashley Fox Director: Emerald Fennell Screenplay: Emerald Fennell Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Christopher Lowell, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, Clancy Brown, Alfred Molina and Francisca Estevez Distributor: Focus Features
A very black dramedy-thriller with another superior performance by Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman” is a debut feature from Emerald Fennell with some shocking twists and real bite.
Mulligan plays Cassie, introduced drunk and disoriented in a nightclub. Jerry (Adam Brody), drinking with his buddies, approaches her, playing Mr. Nice Guy and offering a ride home. In the car he suggests they stop at his place and tries to have his way with her, at which point Cassie suddenly turns the tables on him, later recording the incident in a notebook in which she keeps a running list of guys she’s treated in the same humiliating—and threatening—way; and she’ll continue the pattern with others, including nerdy Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
During the day Cassie lives at home with her well-to-do parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), who are concerned about what a mess she’s made of her life and solicitous about her future. Cassie’s a barista at a coffee shop run by Gail (Laverne Cox), a cynic who seems eminently unconcerned about he employee’s slacker disposition and rude attitude toward the customers.
We get a glimmer of what’s so damaged her when Ryan (Bo Burnham), a semi-befuddled pediatric surgeon, ambles in for a coffee and recognizes her as a once-promising classmate at medical school. In a clumsy get-reacquainted conversation, he admits that he was always infatuated with her and asks for a date, and though she initially resists, eventually she agrees and they seem to hit it off. But when he mentions that another classmate, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), is getting married, it sets Cassie off on what becomes a very personal mission of revenge.
Al, it turns out, was at the center of a sexual assault that caused Cassie to leave school, her life in shreds. And she now decides to act against those who were complicit in letting him get away with it. Her first victim is Madison (Alison Brie), an erstwhile campus friend who let her down in the worst possible way. The second is Dean Walker (Connie Britton), who mishandled the case. In each instance Cassie concocts a devious scheme to cause the women serious pain.
Next up is Jordan (Alfred Molina), the lawyer whose scurrilous tactics got Monroe off. Cassie schemes to confront him and let a bruiser do some physical damage to the fellow. But things do not go as planned, and Cassie seems content to go back to her initial mode of taking general vengeance on predatory men until a revelation involving Ryan induces her to confront Monroe directly. A scene in which Molly Shannon appears as the mother of a childhood friend also explains what precisely is driving Cassie to do what she does.
When the face-off with Monroe finally occurs, it takes a shocking turn that suggests that Cassie’s plans have miscarried. But another twist follows that indicates her plan was even darker than it first appeared.
One doesn’t want to be too explicit about the details of each stage in the narrative; suffice it to say that throughout, Fennell finds ways to upend our expectations and deliver one gut punch after another. With the help of production designer Michael T. Perry and cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, she also fashions the images in an elegant style that carries sinister undercurrents; and Frédéric Thoraval’s editing, in which the film is divided into unnamed chapters, adds to the sense of unease, as also does Anthony Willis’ score, punctuated as it is by bubbly pop tunes, and in one instance by a song from “The King And I,” the irony of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics carrying a savage irony.
Mulligan expertly conveys the varied emotional aspects of Cassie’s character—the blasé surface and the simmering anger beneath it, an aptitude for sarcastic cunning, an ability to transform so as to confuse and trap her victim–and Burnham uses his comic chops effectively as fumblingly charming Ryan, while also demonstrating a capacity to turn dramatic on a dime. Fennell coaxes sharp turns from the supporting cast, many of whom have little more than cameos to make their mark, but special praise is due Molina, whose scene is wrenching.
Some are going to be put off by the uncompromising edginess of the film, and others will charge it with implausibility, especially in terms of its last act. But those complaints fade in comparison to its overall impact. This “Woman” doesn’t just promise; it delivers.