Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★

A stellar Carey Mulligan renders the best performance of her career in actress-writer-director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve)’s audacious first feature in Promising Young Woman, a caustic feminist tale of revenge and grief. Mulligan stars as Cassie, a med school dropout who can’t get past the trauma and grief following the suicide of her childhood friend who was raped by her colleagues. In revenge, Cassie goes every night to a club and pretends to be drunk in order to teach abusive men with their rapey behaviors.

Emerald Fennell, who wrote the second season of Killing Eve, walks on a literal tightrope and gives an arresting, complex insight on toxic rape culture, gender roles, and patriarchal oppression. Fennell pushes all the buttons that needed to be pushed, forcing the viewer to confront these outdated ideals that we have as a society and slyly subvert whatever perceptions of that might be. Like the black humor of Killing Eve, Fennell adds levity to the seriousness of her film contrasting it with her acidic humour, biting wit, and charm.

As a first feature, the film proves to be faulty with its inconsistent tonal changes and scene encounters that have no cohesive link. But then there’s so much dynamic energy in every encounter that it puts every shortcoming at ease. My favorite will always be Cassie’s scene with Molly Shannon as it confronts Cassie with the reality of her situation – to let go of her unresolved grief.

Which brings me to the film’s controversial ending that will surely divide audiences. That ending left me conflicted, irritated, and yes disgusted. I have read articles that gave new perspectives on why Fennell chose to end her story with that. I tend to lean on what I’ve read that explored how Cassie’s unresolved grief drove her to complete recklessness and destruction. In those several encounters in the bar give us the idea that Cassie is already on edge, and completely unfazed by the dangers of her “paybacks.” Which gives me the understanding that we’ve now come to the point where Cassie just DGAF anymore. “Are we expecting a happy ending?” or “Are we expecting the traditional “hero” achieving the justice she deserves?” Fennell subverts our expectations and did the complete opposite = brutalization of human sacrifice. Do I agree with everything Fennell has done with the film? No. But is it realistic? Maybe. But do I applaud Fennell’s audacity and brilliance. Absolutely. The most promising thing about the film is displaying Cassie’s power and her enduring struggle against trauma, and the establishment that feeds these toxic ideals.

Nonetheless, Carey Mulligan’s captivating performance gives a clearer understanding of Fennell’s murky dissections. She gives a human window to this woman’s complicated soul. No matter how we want to believe in her, Mulligan’s every thought and decision is fearless, committed, real, and non-regrettable. It feels good to see Mulligan relish in a powerhouse role like this, after being overlooked so many times with her formidable performances throughout the years.

From a technical standpoint, the film is pretty stylish and slick. The soundtrack is glorious with tunes from Britney Spears to Paris Hilton. The rest of the ensemble is also splendid with great impressions from Connie Britton, Laverne Cox, and Molly Shannon. Bo Burnham deserves a big shout-out too for acing a complicated role.

In the end, Promising Young Woman delivers a fresh take on revenge dramas. The more I think about this, the more it sticks to my skin. Its haunting quality is thanks to Emerald Fennell’s unsparing, fearless vision and I can’t wait to see more of her in the future.

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