Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Movie nerds love to operate within the strict binary of “films” vs. “movies”. It’s generally understood that movies are movies and that films are works of art, but as the landscape of the film industry evolves and as directors and writers adapt to ever-changing expectations, the lines between “film” and “movie” have never been more impossible to define. Every so often, a cinematic treasure comes along that does not fit into any particular genre or binary opposition, and every so often we watch a movie that makes us question the very foundation of cinema, of art, of justice, of morality. 

If movies are for the masses and films are for the experts, I wonder where a piece of cinema as shocking and scathing as Promising Young Woman would land. This film does not seek to please the general public, nor the pretentious film bros (as illustrated in the film by Christopher Mintz-Plasse-McLovin) who gate-keep and authorize what is considered good and what is considered bad. This film was all at once bitingly hilarious and gloriously grim—the perfect ratio for a dark comedy made with emotion and intention. If you have any amount of a soul, Promising Young Woman is the kind of film that will make you feel something, and whether the sensation is pleasant or not is up to the viewer. To this viewer, one who has observed and experienced first-hand the insidious nature of male-kind, watching this story unfold filled me with a rapturous, cathartic satisfaction. 

The dangerous kind of satisfaction that makes your heart race and your face feel hot, the scratch an itch until you bleed kind of satisfaction. After almost a year of living in a pandemic, after almost a year of watching hundreds of thousands of people die and others live their lives normally, this film, and its unapologetic, unbound fury came into my life at the exact right time. There is an equal amount of ferocity and restraint displayed in this film, a combination that feels like appropriate viewing material as modern society rapidly deteriorates around us. Carey Mulligan’s performance as the fearless Cassie was effortless and cool, in a way that was intoxicating and effectively, terrifying. From her cold stare directed toward the cat-calling construction workers, to her spitting in her customer’s coffee, our protagonist showed how bored of subtlety she was. She consistently proved that she was one step ahead, that she knew more than she’d dare reveal—which is exactly what I crave from an antihero. I knew Bo Burnham and his infectious charm would make me fall in love with him, but I didn’t know how much I would fall in love with Carey’s character. Every interaction and confrontation she engaged in was either devastatingly funny or brilliantly brutal, but in her moments of solitude and interiority, she was drowning in emotional depth. She’s likely to be a polarizing figure, but certainly not one we should forget anytime soon. 

In just 1 hour and 54 minutes, Promising Young Woman details the tragic plight of so many women who have been taken advantage of, but the approach here is quite different from previous takes on the rape-revenge story. It is presented with a grave sincerity, but also a whimsical magnetism. It doesn’t aim to merely condemn the patriarchy, much like Cassie, this film seduces an unsuspecting audience into a troubling but necessary reckoning. Pretty much every woman I have known personally, has been taken advantage of by a man. And every woman I know who’s been harassed or abused has, mostly out of necessity, remained quiet and polite and respectful. On the opposing end, I have met many, many Nice Guys who have proved themselves to be unabashedly creepy. Cassie is the antithesis and the antidote to all of this. And watching her carry the bottled up rage of so many women who know her pain and then release it upon the conditionally Nice Guys who fell into her trap was extremely gratifying. She very quickly coaxes them in, assuming the role of the prey, then flips a switch and becomes the predator just as easily. She never forces anyone into an uncomfortable situation, she never presents herself as a threat, she simply opens the door for her prey to be educated, and perhaps inspired to live their lives differently. She is a driven but broken woman, one who embodies pure, unadulterated female rage in a way that I haven’t seen since Rooney Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. To personify both fragility and terror at the same time is a challenging task, but one that Carey Mulligan was more than up for. As you sit and watch this film, there is a sense of unease and uncertainty that begs to be felt. Even as we watch our protagonist successfully deliver the dish best served cold over and over again, one can sense that danger is lurking just around the corner.  

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