Promising Young Woman is a solid vigilante revenge thriller with a few distinctive twists on the genre. It incorporates serial killer movie tropes but there isn’t a serial killer, although the main character sometimes acts a wee bit like a miniskirt version of Hannibal Lecter. The visuals are bright colours and the pop score is gleefully incongruous with the movie’s dark tone. At the centre is a crackerjack compelling lead performance. This is not a happy movie but it is often darkly amusing and dramatically satisfying one.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) goes out every night, much to the consternation of her parents, Stanley (Clancy Brown) and Susan (Jennifer Coolidge). At night she does a morality test on strangers where she pretends to be intoxicated and then when a seemingly nice gentleman takes advantage of her, she springs her trap. Ultimately, she is doing this as revenge for a tragedy she endured in her past while as a medical student, but the vigilante lifestyle is leaving her hollowed out. When Cassie meets a former classmate from medical school, Ryan (Bo Burnham), who is genuinely nice and interested in her, it starts to break down her defences. Soon she meets another former classmate, Madison (Alison Brie), who Cassie uses to finally get her revenge on those who wronged her, but it may endanger her newfound relationship.
The revenge movie tropes are in full effect as a vigilante who has been broken down by their search for vengeance comes out of their shell when meeting a new person. The appeal of Promising Young Woman lies in the subversions. What exactly happens when Cassie takes her revenge of people is never fully spelled out which is nicely ambiguous and creepy. Early on she is shown walking away from a job, chowing down on a jelly doughnut with some spatter running down her arm that could be blood but that is never explained. It’s a very much an image that brings to mind a female praying mantis eating mate afterwards.
Her targets aren’t necessarily people who were involved in the horrible event from her past; she is searching for people like those who committed the crime and taking them out. There is something to be said for the cathartic explosion of violence in the revenge movie that is nearly required but this manages to work without it. The fact it is nebulous what ultimately happens to her targets, they’re simply never seen again as she marks them off as closed in her notebook, is even freakier.
Mulligan is straight up fantastic. She shows a depth to Cassie’s personality as a loner out for vengeance who cannot connect to other folks. Especially, harrowing how she almost instantly changes her whole vibe when Cassie springs her trap on unsuspecting targets. Her final scene where she finally gets to confront the person who broke her life is intense and has a lot of menacing and darkly amusing moments, as he blubbers “We were just kids!” and she is completely over hearing that excuse.
A significant chunk of the movie, aside from the random scenes of vengeance, is her burgeoning relationship with Ryan. Burnham adds a lot of heart to the role and a scene when Ryan meets the parents is one of the few bits of genuine heartfelt affection. The way that Cassie and Ryan’s relationship climaxes is one of the movie’s more surprising twists. Brown and Coolidge as Cassie’s parents are sympathetic as they try to snap their daughter out of her haze, completely frustrated with her inability to move on.
There are more than a few scenes featuring a well-known thespian in a confrontation with Cassie. Brie pops up as someone from her past who knows about the tragic events and Brie does an excellent job showing someone trying to rationalize some horrible stuff that happened in the past. Later Cassie confronts a school dean who brushed the incident under the rug played by Connie Britton and it is a fantastic slow burn as the dean slowly realizes what Cassie is holding over her now. There is a bit where Cassie meets with a surprisingly remorseful former lawyer played by Alfred Molina that is unexpectedly moving.
A lot of style is thrown into Promising Young Woman which makes it stand out from other revenge thrillers. The exacting pace of the confrontation scenes is great. There is a striking visual of Cassie spending a night at home in bed and just watching a roll of pictures of her and her friend on a screensaver silently. When she goes undercover at a bachelor party, she dopes up the partygoers by spiking a bottle of booze with gluttonous close-ups of the unsuspecting bros downing the tainted drink. As much as the film is incredibly dark, there are some brightly absurd bits of levity and humour that keep it from being too much of a constant grind, like a final scene that is dramatically perfect and darkly hilarious.
Promising Young Woman is a twisted take that upends some conventions and satisfyingly sticks to others. Mulligan as the main character holds the entire movie with her intensity and humorous asides. Revenge may not be all that satisfying, for a few choice moments, it can actually be kind of fun.
Promising Young Woman
Director: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham and Alison Brie