Promising Young Woman is an exercise in misdirection, a revenge thriller that gets the audience to bay for blood, but never delivers the moments we expect to see. The vigilante, Cassie, is played with a slow, crackling fury by Carey Mulligan. She’s a 30-year-old woman who dropped out of med school after a traumatic event – an event that director Emerald Fennell reveals gradually, and carefully, midway through the film.
Early on, we meet Cassie half-conscious at a club, where a guy (played by Adam Brody) offers her a lift home, Instead, he takes her back to his place, and plies her with booze. He gets her into bed, and begins to undress her, ignoring her lack of consent, until Cassie sits bolt upright, clearly sober, and looks straight down the lens of the camera, at Brody’s character, at us and says: ‘I said WHAT are you doing?’.
It’s a moment that Fennell has described as a kind of Promising Young Woman origin story, an idea for a scene that became the film. It is Cassie’s way of seeking justice – every week she masquerades as drunk in a club until, as she tells one of her marks: ‘A nice guy like you comes over to see if I’m okay’ before taking her home to take advantage. Their mouths deliver pseudo-feminist platitudes as their hands edge up the leg of what they think is a semi-conscious woman. She holds a mirror up to their abusive behaviour, and they are frightened by what they see. Mainly, though, they are frightened to have been caught out.
The director has said that there is nothing in this movie that isn’t in mainstream comedies, and she’s right. Watching it I had flashbacks to horrendous noughties films like Observe and Report, which features a sexual assault played off as a ‘funny’ drunk sex scene. Fennell has expertly cast the men in Promising Young Women against type, using actors we’re used to seeing as bumbling guys in rom coms or gross-out comedies. The message is clear: the supposed ‘nice guy’ can be an abuser too.
Those opening scenes are powerful, and the intentions are good, but good intentions don’t always make for a great film. Parts of the dialogue seem laboured and are not original enough to carry the intended side-eye to the audience (including a cameo from that faux good-guy trope: ‘I never understood why women wear so much make-up’). And tonally, the film is all over the place. At times, it veers into cartoonish antihero territory, without ever committing to that path.
Iffy dialogue and ambiguity aside, there is genuine chemistry when she meets her love interest Ryan (played by former YouTube-star-turned-filmmaker Bo Burnham), especially as we watch them dance together in a genre-bending montage set to Paris Hilton’s 2006 song ‘Stars Are Blind’.
Fennell uses this kind of hyper-feminine stylisation to shape the world Cassie has created for herself, a world coloured in with neon flamingo pinks and beach bar blues. It’s a kind of protective shield, a way of showing those around her that she is ‘okay’, so that she can continue her addictive cycle of revenge.
There is another, darker motif that Fennell returns to: The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton’s 1955 thriller about a villainous preacher who plots to seduce and kill a widow for her money, and ends up seducing an entire town with his phoney religious gospel. A clip even flashes up on screen, a reminder of how easy it can be for men to commit violence against women, and have the world on their side. In The Night of the Hunter, a lullaby plays as the widow’s children escape the preacher. That same lullaby plays in one of Promising Young Woman’s most accomplished and dreamlike scenes, where Cassie realises she has been duped. Like those children in Night of the Hunter, she finds herself adrift again.
Moments like these elevate the film to the point where its flaws no longer seem to matter, until you reach the extremely divisive ending. Without giving too much away, it’s crushingly bleak – a bleakness Fennell has apparently wanted to take even further, but was pushed in another direction by the studio, and it shows. After spending the whole movie subverting expectations, it feels like Promising Young Woman tries to have it both ways with a ‘satisfying’ twist, and leaves the audience adrift.
Streams on Sky Cinema in the UK Apr 16.