Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★

Gripping from the first sequence, even though the key points are included in the trailer, watching it play out in excruciating detail rather than chopped down to 15 seconds makes it feel like a real-time nightmare. And it maintains that level of craftsmanship for a surprisingly long time. The slightly off-kilter cinematography, courtesy of Hyena DP Benjamin Kracun, brilliantly suits the content, with early wider shots creating a physical distance from the morally dubious main character which lends it an almost voyeuristic quality, challenging the audience’s own participation in the events that unfold. And Emerald Fennell’s direction is outstanding, exercising a sense of restraint where the film desperately needs it. Some lines and moments could have used a bit more reigning in, occasionally spelling out details that are more effective when hinted at or hammering home obvious punchlines, but it doesn’t entirely clash with the stylish approach—it’s not aiming for naturalism by any stretch.

But then there’s a series of “and then”s in the second half. (Cue for those who haven’t seen it to stop here.) 1. And then there’s the scene with Alfred Molina which isn’t only implausible in reality, but also in the world of the film which has established male remorse as virtually non-existent, let alone all-consuming (it becomes clear later that this scene was reverse engineered in order to arrive at the finale). 2. And then there’s the strained exposition scene with Molly Shannon stating things Mulligan’s character already knows and ending it with “you know that,” and asking questions like “why are you here.” It’s intended for the audience’s benefit, so we have a better understanding of Mulligan’s character—a choice I think fundamentally hurts the film, especially at the point where we’re under the impression Mulligan has committed an absolutely unconscionable act of revenge (I). 3. And then there’s the whole dating interlude and montage, where the film veers so far into cliche, I thought Fennell had lost the thread entirely. Mulligan and Burnham have enough natural chemistry to sell the romance, there’s no need to lean on rom-com conventions (light piano notes and romantic string swells), which do clash with the stylish approach.

From here, it all feels rushed, leading to a lackluster finale which probably reads better on paper. The third act is ambitious and bold, but it gives no time for the audience to process the shocking turn before immediately shifting toward broad comedy (not only in the characters’ reaction to the situation—which could work as bleakly dark comedy were it not for Greenfield’s fundamental miscasting—but also in the film’s editing itself). The film becomes so focused on subverting expectations, but the ostensible rug pull isn’t effective when there isn’t enough time to process the jarring plot turn and tonal shift. In the end, it just ends up feeling confused about its own intentions, closing on a bitter note that feels antithetical to what preceded it. There’s a lot to enjoy, and it’s certainly never dull, but it could have been a fascinating story about coping with trauma and re-learning to trust people, a darkly comedic revenge thriller, or a gritty and tense psychological drama about perpetuating cycles of violence, and in the end it simultaneously feels like all and none of those.

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