Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★½

“You killed the stripper at your bachelor party? What is this, the nineties?” 

A thorny anti-revenge thriller that will surely disappoint those expecting the Tarantino-esque bloodbath promised from the marketing. Writer/director Emerald Fennell makes an audacious feature debut with a seriocomic take on rape culture, showing a willingness to take big swings that even when they don’t connect you still admire the brazen attempt. Fennell opts against the violent retribution that’s pretty standard for the sub-genre, denying viewers any sense of bloody catharsis or feminist empowerment. The frustration is by design, but one thing that Fennell nails down are the film’s surface pleasures: symmetrical compositions, pastel color schemes, and canny use of needle drops. It takes a delicate hand to let these elements juxtapose with the pervasive darkness of the piece and tow the line with just the right amount of archness. The film moves briskly enough and entertains throughout, so much so I didn’t really pick up on the faults until thinking back on it afterwards. 

Script-wise, the particulars of Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan, truly phenomenal) plan don’t make a whole lot of sense: she uses herself as bait and when the ruse of feigning inebriation is revealed, Cassie gives her would-be predators...a pithy comeback? The movie makes clear this attention-seeking behavior is a form of self-harm, but it never addresses head-on how actually dangerous this is for such little pay-off. Undoubtedly, some of Cassie’s numerous encounters must been more severe than a befuddled McLovin’ (and maybe that’s what those red marks in her notebook indicate). A notable aspect here is that Cassie serves way disproportionately harsher punishments to complicit women over abusive men; letting the work operate in a discomfiting headspace in terms of how it metes out justice. The film is critical of institutional failures to keep women safe, yet has the gall to make the police show up at the end as the cavalry which completely contradicts its main messaging. If you’re going to withhold vicarious thrills of brutal vengeance, don’t turn around and craft some fantasy where the cops save the fucking day. Ultimately, this is an impressively constructed movie with questionable narrative choices that keep me from fully embracing it; but I do appreciate the strength of Fennell’s aesthetics, ability to juggle various tones, and eagerness to tackle uncomfortable subject matter. This is bold, confident filmmaking through and through.

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