Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★½

A pastel-colored poison pill with a couple of truly sledgehammer-force sucker punches in store, Promising Young Woman establishes its seething, acidic worldview then asks you to tentatively lower your guard in a spikily comedic middle stretch, complete with a divine Paris Hilton needle-drop — all so that it can sock you with one of the most cynically devastating third acts in a movie this year.

In a less bizarre season, this would be a good fit for the “feel-bad movie of the holidays” option David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo attempted to mainstream. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment, and the marketing is hiding a darker, angrier, more despairing film than some audiences will be ready for. 

Carey Mulligan is dynamite, finding depth in an extraordinarily pulpy role not too far removed from an exploitation-style Biblical avenger, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by the brash, take-no-prisoners conviction with which Emerald Fennell has crafted this, her debut film. It’s like Blue Ruin meets To Die For, shot with the pop sensibility of an early 2000s music video. Seeing a femme fatale as realized by such an unapologetic female filmmaker is plainly fascinating, as is the direction the film ultimately takes her in, even if some of the plot reveals make her moral compass slightly more complicated than the film digs into. 

Watching Promising Young Woman months removed from the Sundance mountain air, I’m still mightily conflicted about its ending and the murkiness of the film’s politics, which ultimately feel more like a cry of righteous, jagged rage than anything clean or compact. It’s challenging to parse a revenge thriller about these specific issues that ends with its protagonist in the place she’s in, to avoid spoilers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if mileage varied drastically. The cutesy knife-twist right before the credits feels like a miscalculation, and I wish Cassie was a little less of a symbol and more of a fully explored character, but knowing where this was going it worked for me a little better the second time around.

Side note: Bo Burnham’s line reading of “I’m going to buy you a bicycle” unfortunately did make my heart soar.

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