Carey Mulligan as Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas
Bo Burnham as Dr. Ryan Cooper
Alison Brie as Madison
Clancy Brown as Stanley Thomas
Jennifer Coolidge as Susan Thomas
Laverne Cox as Gail
Chris Lowell as Alexander “Al” Monroe
Connie Britton as Dean Elizabeth Walker
Adam Brody as Jerry
Max Greenfield as Joe
Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil
Sam Richardson as Paul
Alfred Molina as Jordan
Molly Shannon as Mrs. Fisher
Written and Directed by Emerald Fennell
Promising Young Woman Review:
The rape and revenge subgenre of thrillers is one that goes way back in films, but generally its titular violent crime generally acts as a catalyst for breeding equally brutal violence for the remainder of the story, either at the hands of the original victim or someone close to them, but what if it didn’t have to? What if, instead of delivering (incredibly justified) graphic kills and torture to perpetrators, audiences were left unsure as to what happened to each antagonist encountered by the protagonist and the film took a more psychologically destructive approach to knocking them down a peg? This is the path that Carey Mulligan’s Cassie takes in Emerald Fennell’s black comedy thriller, Promising Young Woman, and it proves to be one of the smartest decisions any film in the genre has made.
Everyone said Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was a promising young woman — until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be: she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs of the past.
Breaking the story down into various chapters not only allows for a great trickle of expository revelations, namely in the past and Cassie’s motivations for her actions throughout, but it also helps keeps the proceedings moving smoothly and its various genre transitions from feeling too jarring. Jumping between a seemingly unconnected string of perverted men passing themselves off as nice guys being tormented by Cassie to a slow-building romance between her and former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) to the outright reveal of her past trauma may seem like a truly impossible task and yet with skillful writing infusing everything with a simultaneous dark wit and sympathetic heart, Fennell pulls it off with ease.
In addition to the stellar writing, Fennell displays a remarkably stylish eye for direction in the film, never over-saturating the proceedings with its neon colors like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Elle Fanning-led disappointment but still utilizing plenty of vibrant colors in both set design and wardrobes that make every shot of the film a visual work of art. She also does a great job of electing to not show some of the things audiences are most wanting to see, but rather leaving them to their imaginations and keeping the lens on the talented ensemble roster.
Speaking of, one would be hard-pressed to go back over the course of the past 16 years and find a bad performance on Carey Mulligan’s resume, but her turn as Cassie in this film is Oscar caliber and a career best. She brings a real charm and easily sympathetic presence to the film’s protagonist that further bolsters the story and the audiences’ desire to root for her as she seeks to expose the nasty nature of men one at a time and shifts between carrying herself with confidence and struggling to pick herself back up effortlessly. Alongside Mulligan, the supporting ensemble cast are all remarkable to watch, with Bo Burnham proving to be a solid romantic leading man and all of the “nice guys” making the most of their short screen time by chewing up every bit of dialogue and scenery possible.
One of the best things about the film that is sure to spark endless debate and conversation moving forward is its insane ending. Now don’t fret, no spoilers will be spilling from my fingers in writing this, but with a story that already proves to be wildly unpredictable in the lead up to its final act, audiences will surely never see the genius and shocking finale coming.
Admittedly, as much as I love the ending for its unpredictability, it was the only thing that kept the film from being a full-fledged masterpiece in my eyes, but thanks to its wonderfully subversive nature, the darkly hilarious and far-too-authentic timeliness of its story and characters, a career-defining performance from Mulligan and phenomenal writing and stylish direction from Fennell in her feature debut, Promising Young Woman is a brilliant film from start to finish.