Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★½

What a confident directorial debut. Emerald Fennell´s “Promising Young Woman” is a stylish, energetic, provocative, uncompromising, and furious indictment of society´s lax attitude towards sexual assault as well as a wild genre mix.

The clear highlight of the film is Carey Mulligan´s raw and electrifying performance as Cassandra, the damaged and unhinged antihero of this revenge tale, a former med student seeking justice for the rape of her best friend (who committed suicide). Mulligan impactfully conveys the pain, remorse, and righteous anger caused by trauma, grief, and injustice, as well as Cassandra´s intense determination and willpower. She does several questionable things on her quest for revenge, but you clearly understand where she is coming from. I felt conflicted about her behavior at several parts, which I see as a good thing. Great revenge films should challenge your moral judgment. In any case, Cassandra is a complicated, flawed, and deeply human character that commands your attention and will stay in your mind.

I also enjoyed the many great cameos, though in contrast to Cassandra, the supporting characters feel more like archetypes than real people. Like they are just there to represent certain points the director wants to make concerning rape culture. Some are even a bit cartoonish. Bo Burnham gets the most focus, but like the other supporting characters, his role and arc in the film are instantly clear and utterly predictable. Still, it was nice to see so many familiar faces.

“Promising Young Woman” subverts genre expectations both with its bright and colorful aesthetic and some surprising story twists (which doesn´t contradict what I said about predictable characters). Like I said, the direction is impressively confident for a debut, and cinematography, sound design, and music selection/score are top-notch. Just the balancing of the different tones didn´t always work for me. The film wants to be a dark comedy, a revenge thriller, and a serious social commentary all at once, and these aspects sometimes work against each other, at least in my opinion.

The most divisive part of the film is definitely the ending. It´s shocking and it takes risks, which is commendable, but it´s not entirely clear how to interpret the message. It adds a bitter taste to the catharsis, which is so important for the rape and revenge genre. Does this make the movie more impactful and “realistic”, or does it make it “sugar-coated cynical misery porn”, as some negative reviews call it? I´m not sure, to be honest. And that the catharsis relies heavily on trust in the same justice system (police, the lawyer) the whole film indicts as ineffective and biased also feels rather contradictory. But in any case, the ending is memorable, you can´t deny that (It requires some suspension of disbelief, though).

I´ve been thinking about the ending and the movie as a whole for over a week now, so I guess that the film does more right than wrong. For me, it might not be a mind-blowing gamechanger, but it definitely is an original and thought-provoking conversation starter. My rating could increase after a rewatch.

Spoiler discussion

An important plot point is a video of the rape that was sent around afterwards. That means, several people were in possession of that video. Why wasn´t it used as evidence in a trial? Discovering it seems like basic police work to me. If the point of this is to demonstrate the magnitude of ineffectiveness of the legal institutions, when it comes to sexual assault (as well as the apathy of the people who have seen the video and didn´t do anything), then I´m further confused, why the same institutions have such a positive role in the ending.

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