From the showrunner of Killing Eve, Emerald Fennell, here comes a rape-revenge thriller that feels familiar in bits, but unlike other films with similar theme, it operates on a completely different modus operandi. Aimed for precision in the narrative, direction, and lead performance, Promising Young Woman is a thriller that stings hard and never let go. At its center, there’s Carey Mulligan who singlehandedly carries the mission—taking vigilante mantle and serving revenge the way it should be served: cold. She dives head first to the full-raged war against everyone who has wronged her; but, more to it, she plans to take the war more structurally and mercilessly.
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Mulligan is Cassandra, or call her Cassie, once a promising young woman who has now become obsessed to be the punisher. She’s 30-year-old, living in her parents’ house, and working in a coffee shop; those things only happen because she dropped off her promising potential in a med school a few years back. Yet, this thought-provoking thriller doesn’t reveal such backstories upfront. Instead, Promising Young Woman introduces audiences to Cassie as a young, dead-drunk woman who seems alone and lost in a bar. That’s inarguably her finest trick to catch the attention of nice, gentleman-sporting guys—the promising young man, who offers to give her a ride home only to take advantage of her. One thing for sure: that’s not going to happen.
Unlike most rape-revenge film, take I Spit on Your Grave for example, Fennell’s take on the subject matter doesn’t over-indulge itself in the graphic, harrowing details of the deed. The narrative starts way beyond the aftermath of the event that set Promising Young Woman in motion. If it were a lesser film, the narrative would sulk into a chronological chain of revenge that only gets bleaker as the story progresses; but, this is an elegant, provocative kind which exploits the irony and shoves it back to the thinking audiences. It’s, after all, a witty jab to the more structural, dodgy rape culture itself rather on individuals. Therefore, the plot doesn’t picture the rapists as some feral hillbillies or some one-dimensional psychopaths. The message is crystal clear: depraved rapists come in many shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. Some of them, even, hide in the plain sight with their educational background, career prowess, or social reputation masked as “gentleman.”
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In implementing its provocatively unsettling idea, Fennell—who also writes the piece—holds one credo dear: precision. Everything is precise. The writing of Cassie as a full-fledged character allows the precision to be fully implemented; there are lots of questions about her life’s decision that seem like a tight knot in the beginning, but, it will only unravel graciously. Her methods are clear cut and well thought off without having to be monotonous. The best thing about her method is: it’s compelling from the very start to the bittersweet end and it shows no mercy to anyone—not only those who commit the firsthand crime, but also those who takes no action to do what’s right—doesn’t matter what the gender is. The additional topping adds to the revenge party is Bo Burnham‘s ironic nice guy, which provides a sense of delicacy and moral ambiguity to the film’s provocative nature.
Fennell complements the retribution story with highly energetic romp and vibrant style whose taste lingers as longer as the ending does. Promising Young Woman dedicates its narrative as a straight-forward nudge to the subject matter without having to touch the solid ground. It’s solid, provocative, and unnerving; at some points, it even feels uncomfortable to watch. It’s culminating in a poignant ending that mixes emotion that only resonates the message blatantly even if it sounds too vocal—thanks to Mulligan’s high-pitched calls to action.