Emerald Fennel’s debut feature film is advertised as a feminist revenge tale, but it proves to be more than that. Promising Young Woman is an ambitious debut feature film from an established writer and actor. The film tells the story of Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), a young woman who is haunted by her past. The film features well-established actors like Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Sam Richardson, and Adam Brody who deliver small but great additions to the film. While there are a few other notable female revenge tale films, Promising Young Woman quite original in its approach.
Cassandra likes to deceive men in bars who take advantage of women. How do men react when the intoxicated pretty woman they brought home suddenly is not so intoxicated anymore? The answer is telling: men know they could not get away with it if women were sober. The movie turns this question into a series of superbly executed scenes with Cassandra going home with multiple men to then turn the script on them. These scenes highlight Carey Mulligan’s talent and director Emerald Fennel’s great directorial potential.
Cassandra’s friend Nina was raped during her time at med-school, and Cassandra had to drop out to be her caretaker. Cassandra continues this vicious cycle of revenge. She feels empowered and in control but neglects other sides of her life, which means she went from med school to working at a coffee shop. Her life seems to stall until she runs into Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old med-school acquaintance who wants to reconnect and asks her out. Cassandra gives him a chance, and they end up developing a relationship even if Cassandra resists letting him in. But getting closer to Ryan also means reliving the past and reigniting her desire for revenge.
The film struggles because of its quirky chapter structure. Each chapter shows Cassandra targeting different people from her past and setting up encounters with them. She wants to give them a chance of redemption and offers them the ability to acknowledge what truly happened to Nina. But Cassandra is ready to cause harm if people refuse to acknowledge how they hurt Nina. The chapter structure creates a fracture in the movie, and this is when the film begins to falter. By introducing people and keeping them isolated from one another, the film struggles to pull this picture together. The scenes speak about what happened but leave a lot to our imaginations, which is why I think they will resonate much more strongly with those who have gone through similar situations.
But the most consequential act of the film is its final one. The film quickly ramps up to an intriguing scene featuring Cassandra disguised as a nurse heading to a bachelor’s party. Cassandra seeks revenge. What happens next is difficult to watch but also feels very anti-climactic given the build-up. The movie ends with some resolution but also clearly not enough. And while this ending is realistic, it just does not work for a film with a first act like this one.
Despite a disappointing ending, this debut film is ambitious and challenging. The movie’s mix of dark comedy, romance, and suspense propels it forward, and its quirky chaptered structure makes it unpredictable. But the main reason to watch this movie is Carey Mulligan’s multifaceted performance. Mulligan dominates the screen and delivers every line with absolute control in a way that makes her character the most memorable. Promising Young Woman might not be perfect, but it is a promising debut film that is everything but boring.
Director: Emerald Fennell
Writer: Emerald Fennell