Nick Schneider’s review published on Letterboxd:
The revenge genre has had a storied history of telling female centric stories about women who seek vengeance against those who have wronged them. Writer/director Emerald Fennell injects it with a much needed freshness with “Promising Young Woman” which is anchored by a breakout performance by Carey Mulligan. Timely social commentary, a bold and unique style, and a story that’s sure to be talked about for a long time make this a must watch.
The film follows Cassie, a med school dropout, who masquerades as a vulnerable drunk at night clubs to lure unsuspecting men into taking her home with them. The opening sequence sets the stage for what’s to come perfectly as Cassie tricks a guy into taking her home with him (even after insisting that she doesn’t want to on the cab ride there) before pulling the rug out from under him as she reveals that she’s not the vulnerable drunk that she portrayed herself as. It’s an interesting play on the power dynamic that unfortunately plagues the real world and it sets up Cassie as somebody who is very smart, cunning and somebody who is not to be messed with.
When Cassie’s backstory is revealed shortly after that opening sequence it’s quite the contrast from the fierce and bold person we see in that opening scene. She still lives at home with her parents, she works at a coffee shop as a barista, and she seems to not have a lot going on for her since she dropped out of med school. Cassie’s mother even tells her that she doesn’t know what to tell people when they ask about her. This is clearly somebody who is emotionally scarred from her past and her trajectory throughout this movie has her coming to terms with her past and confronting her demons head on.
Early on in the film as she’s working at the coffee shop she has a run in with a former classmate from high school, Ryan, played with an infectious charisma by Bo Burnham, and the two begin reminiscing about their past and begin somewhat of a relationship. Their scenes together play almost like a romantic comedy with such a gleeful bliss and it’s such a stark contrast to her double life as the vulnerable drunk. This relationship is the thing that’s gonna help her overcome her past and is purposely a counter to the usual trappings of the revenge genre itself.
The plot from there goes in wildly unexpected directions as she tries to avenge her past while also having a normal relationship. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s dark, and the ending is gonna absolutely polarize viewers with one of the more shocking endings I’ve seen in quite some time although I think the conversation it will bring is arguably the intent of the writer and what makes this film an instant classic of the revenge genre. People are going to be talking about the ending for years to come.
Aside from Cassie and Ryan there’s a stellar supporting cast including Laverne Cox as Cassie’s boss at the coffee shop, Alison Brie as another former classmate of Cassie, and even Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin’ from Superbad) has a small role as one of Cassie’s unexpecting victims. Carey Mulligan is the star of the show here though as she delivers a powerhouse performance that is certainly worthy of awards buzz with her juxtaposition of charismatic and menacing portrayal of Cassie.
Emerald Fennell’s direction is also a standout as she showcases all of these contrasting styles with such technical proficiency. I’m not sure how you pull off a dramatic romantic comedy revenge thriller but she did it here and everything comes together nicely. There’s a particularly well shot sequence that has Cassie smashing a car at an intersection while the camera slowly follows her around the car in a single motion that showcases her proficiency behind the camera.
The music selection is also notable with several notable pop songs being used prominently throughout alongside the stellar score by Anthony Willis. There’s an ominous remix of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” that is just so perfectly placed that it’s gonna stand as one of my favorite sequences of the entire year. Juxtapose that with the pharmacy sequence that has Bo Burnham singing Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” in a montage of rom-com brilliance and you’ve got one of the more interesting movies of the year when it comes to audio.
In a year stacked with great films “Promising Young Woman” stands near the top with its unique style, biting social commentary and an ending that’s gonna be discussed for ages. Carey Mulligan is brilliant as the lead character and I’m excited to see the next role she takes on after this breakout performance. Writer/Director Emerald Fennell is also somebody to watch as she hits it out the park with her directorial debut. By shaking the revenge genre to its core this movie is one that I’m gonna be talking about for years and years to come.