The people closest to Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) call her Cassie, but they definitely aren’t her friends. If one thing is abundantly clear about her, it’s that she’s a loner. A loner by choice, too. By the look of it, she’s kept to herself for years — ever since the suicide of her closest friend, Nina, who was brutalized by her male peers and then failed by the legal system when she and Cassie were in medical school. Now in her 30s and still living at home, Cassie spends her days working at the local coffee shop with Gail (Laverne Cox) and her nights out at clubs exacting revenge on the kind of guys who pushed her beloved Nina over the edge. Clearly, her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) would rather have the lively, prosperous version of their daughter come back to them, but they seem fearful of being too critical of this distant, inauspicious Cassie. They just pretend it’s normal for her to give up on her dreams of becoming a doctor and come home late night after night, ignoring the very obvious tension that hovers above the breakfast table each morning.
Cassie’s routine is always the same at these clubs: She stumbles in, all by her lonesome, and situates herself in the corner of the place. She’s away from the crowd, but she’s intentionally positioned in the eyeline of whatever group of men she happens to target that night. Stone-cold sober but acting falling-down drunk, Cassie then allows herself to be picked up and taken home by a so-called “nice guy,” willingly plunging herself into a dangerous situation so that she can turn off the act at the last minute and reprimand them for preying on (and attempting to take advantage of) an innocent, seemingly intoxicated woman. Then, once she’s taught them a lesson, she heads home to start the whole thing over again the next day. This is all thrown for a loop when Ryan (Bo Burnham), one of the only truly nice guys from med school, shows up in her coffee shop and asks her out. Not only does this unexpected reunion begin to throw off her nightly plans, but the pair’s budding relationship also starts to challenge everything she thought she knew about the opposite sex.
Revenge thrillers are nothing new, especially ones with female leads — see Carrie (1976), Ms. 45 (1981), Kill Bill Vols. 1 (2003) and 2 (2004), just to name a handful. Promising Young Woman doesn’t seem to mind any of these potential comparisons, though. It’s not like writer-director Emerald Fennell is trying to subvert them or anything. With the throwback soundtrack, the ’90s aesthetic, and the brazenly dark humor sprinkled throughout the film, it’s almost like she welcomes the comparisons in good fun. (Cassie might’ve even been inspired by these cultural touchstones. It would actually explain her peculiar behavior quite well.) Cassie wasn’t ever physically harmed by the men who drove Nina to the brink, but their actions have never left her mind — the more time passes, the more Cassie is convinced that all self-proclaimed nice guys are capable of doing what those men did. So, like the femmes fatales who came before her, Cassie has made it her mission to deliver the kind of justice the authorities were incapable of serving.
Femme fatale is sort of the wrong word, though. Contrary to what’s suggested by her notebook full of tally marks and a long list of her victims’ names, Cassie isn’t — and never has been — a killer. She’s certainly mastered the art of the lure, seeing as her list is rather extensive, but she’s not out for blood. All Cassie wants is to make these men feel small, vulnerable, and scared so she can scold them for their intended wrongdoing. Fennell’s decision to keep Cassie nonviolent is a real departure from the stuff viewers would expect from a female-led revenge thriller, and as a result, it sets Promising Young Woman apart in a league of its own. It’s unclear whether that league is minor or major, though.
A subset of professional critics and casual moviegoers have claimed Fennell’s film is an attempt to “girlboss sexual assault,” i.e. employ a stereotypically strong but snarky female lead to drop perfectly worded (and reductive) “men are pigs” platitudes on quivering buffoons. Promising Young Woman isn’t as toothless as these analyses would lead one to believe. Yes, it could’ve cut a little — maybe even a lot — deeper, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sharp. Mulligan’s performance, especially in the first half, goes to some remarkably dark places, and Burnham’s supporting role makes for a surprisingly hefty contribution to Fennell’s thesis. Neither of these performers is doing anything overtly wrong, and to be honest, neither is Fennell nor her well-intentioned debut feature. Ultimately, the real flaws are not in Cassie, her personality, or her motives, but in the implications of her actions themselves.
There’s no denying that Cassie believes wholeheartedly that she is doing right by her dead friend by chastising potential assaulters and mounting calculated psychological attacks on those she feels are responsible for Nina’s death. Her attempts to traumatize people like former classmate and bystander (Alison Brie), the dean of their alma mater (Connie Britton), and a crooked lawyer who was involved in the investigation (Alfred Molina) are understandably rooted in her trauma from Nina’s death. They hurt Nina, so Cassie wants to hurt them. However, although Fennell likely didn’t intend for this to be the case, this eye-for-an-eye plotting insinuates that men should only respect women out of fear of vengeance. It’s like when a public figure prefaces his condemnation of an injustice against a woman by saying, “As the husband of a wife, the father of daughters, and the brother of sisters ...” — if a basic and universal respect of personhood does not exist within someone without conditions, then does it even exist in the first place?
Promising Young Woman’s solid opening, its rom-com-riffing middle section, and its surprising veer toward its final act (and the subsequent twists and turns that follow) have been dividing audiences since its Sundance premiere last January, and its recent VOD release has managed to keep the conversation going almost a full year later. This is a testament to the sheer watchability of Fennell’s film, the power of Mulligan’s performance, and the rambunctious energy that permeates throughout, regardless of the flawed dialectics underneath. Sure, it could’ve hit harder, it could’ve gone darker, it could’ve gotten angrier, but as it stands, Promising Young Woman still feels thoroughly unique despite these shortcomings. Who knows? Maybe Promising Young Woman has to walk so that an even more scathing film can run.
Promising Young Woman is now available to rent from major online platforms.