Film Review – Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman

At times hauntingly depressing, with depths of righteous anger, star Carey Mulligan and director Emerald Fennell have made something deftly original, tantalizing, and fulfilling in Promising Young Woman. Cassandra (Mulligan) is working at a coffee shop, living at home after dropping out of medical school years ago, and seems to have little ambition beyond her night time activity of pretending to be drunk and letting some “nice” guy pick her up, and then seeing if they try to rape her. This routine is disrupted by Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate in med school who had a crush on her back in college, who is able to match her dark humor with witty comebacks of his own. This also reveals more of the details of what happened in her past and motivates her forward in surprising ways.

As Cassandra, Carey Mulligan gives what may be the best performance of her career so far. For every movement she makes, every look she gives, the weight of her past and her righteous anger is spilling out. Even when she is just hanging out with her boss or her parents you always feel that the pain/anger is right there beneath her, waiting. This translates into some great biting, cynical humor, especially when she is around Ryan, but also provides an ability to put on a mask when she needs to be someone else to get at her targets. This is her at her scariest, when she is calmly smiling and we know that something bad will happen. But this is not her being just an emotionless vengeance machine, we also see the weight of what it is doing to her. She is not happy at any point—it is destroying her but she sees no way out of it, she cannot let go, and it also depresses her and makes her doubt herself when she sees some of the results.

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She always appears like a living husk, not able to enjoy life, only coming alive when she is striking back. It is in those moments that, more and more, we see the complexities of the feelings she has held this whole time, and what they have made her capable of doing. You may not agree with what she is doing at times but you can clearly see where it comes from. A beautiful speech near the end wraps up her feelings so completely that it is sad to think about.

Director Emerald Fennell has created something great and truly original with this film, but as a first feature it is beyond impressive. She knows what she has in Carey Mulligan and lets her do the heavy lifting emotionally, but Fennell has created a great ensemble as well, making truth out of the saying “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Connie Britton has only one scene but is able to play it to maximum effect, going from a simple college administrator trying to pacify what she thinks is a minor issue with Cassandra, to full on terror, anger, and contrite misery in a few minutes. This movie is full of moments like this, be it Cassandra bantering with her boss Gail (Laverne Cox), or Cassandra’s worried parents Stanley (Clancy Brown) and Susan (Jennifer Coolidge) trying to be respectful but so worried about their daughter.

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Beyond her actors Fennell has a singular focus on the men targeted: the “nice” guy that we never think of as a violent rapist but who is just as disgusting as the guy lurking in the alley. These men are given a different perception, be it by society, but even more so by themselves, that Fennell breaks open, exposing it for us to see. It cannot be overlooked that this is also Fennell’s screenplay and the witty one liners and speeches of Mulligan are all hers as well. She does a great job slowly revealing what Cassandra is doing to her targets and also giving us the details of what actually happened that led to all of this. But what sealed this for me as a great piece of art was the ending, which was beyond great. It took me by surprise in the many ways it unraveled. While the impetus for the ending at first felt a little too convenient it ended up being incredibly satisfying, right down to the choice of song playing over the final moments of the film so that I couldn’t help but feel wowed at what I just saw.

This movie stayed with me way after it was over. I kept thinking about the way things had progressed and how more and more everything fell into place. When seeing screen shots of Mulligan in the nurse’s outfit and colorful wig, or dressed in pink while reading a book and having a candy cane colored straw in her mouth, I thought this just looks silly, and had little interest in seeing it. But it is so much more than that, and even those shots that looked to be silly moments pay off greatly in the context of the film. Promising Young Woman is one of those movies that digs into you so that you find yourself thinking about it at random moments, with different details and ideas permeating through your mind, making you want to rewatch and explore the film again and again.


Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

You can reach Benjamin via email or on twitter

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