Promising Young Woman Review: A Playful Take on the Revenge Thriller
Stone Cold Steve Austin would say, “don’t trust anybody”. Cassie would say the same.
Trying to gather my thoughts and present them in a linear, comprehensive style has been a difficult experience for me when it comes to Promising Young Woman. It’s not because there isn’t a lot to say or because I don’t know what to say.
On Flickmetic I make it a point to be as neutral as I can during reviews in regards to how I tackle the social commentary. This website is supposed to be a break from the chaos of the outside world; a place we can gather and converse about all the best–and worst–flicks. But with this one I find myself incapable of at least not touching briefly on what it’s trying to say, even though I understand that I would need to write an entire article on the matter in order to make my feelings fully known.
Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell, is about Cassie–a young woman (who is also promising, you might say) who moonlights as a vigilante of sorts. She pretends to be inebriated in order to pick up predators who would end up raping her. Since she is sober, however, she flips it around on them and tries to make sure that they never do it again. I’m not talking with violence–Fennell made it a point to plant this more in the real world where she can’t just kill people and get away with it.
My inner conflict does not come from that. Rape is an atrocity, and I happen to be quite a big fan of revenge flicks in general. It’s gut-wrenching to watch somebody suffer horrifically at the hands of their fellow man, but it’s also insanely satisfying to watch a competently made revenge tale play out. Promising Young Woman delivers as a film, but the social justice umbrella under which it operates played out.
Simply put, this infers that there’s a rape culture. It’s not mentioned literally in the film, but there’s a strong case to be made–in both interviews with Fennell and in the flick itself–that Promising Young Woman wants to comment on it. The concept of a rape culture is not based on evidence; it is a sociological idea presented in the Western world using statistics that aren’t derived with sound methodology. Is rape a prevalent problem? Of course! Is it a culture over here in North America? No.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features.
But despite my hesitations towards what it wants to say, how does it say it? To Fennell’s credit, she doesn’t just target awful men. There is no shortage of that–much like in real life–but she does turn the lens on women as well. There is also necessary criticism of how privileged elites can get away with so much, along with rightfully opposing the idea of blaming the victim.
A fictional film that is trying to give the audience a compelling story while also purveying a socially conscious theme is probably never going to be as complex as a documentary would be, but this does flirt with wanting to go farther. It doesn’t reach the heights required which means it can fall a bit flat in some regards. I’m just saying, it’s not exactly a nuanced, comprehensive discussion on the matter–but like I said, it’s also not a non-fiction movie that has the time to delve deeper. Nor does it have to be because revenge films are meant to titillate the viewer and satiate our desire for vengeance when done wrong.
In Cassie’s world almost everybody is a target because her life is insular. She’s determined to enact justice and there are times where she’s willing to cross a boundary in order to get what she wants. This makes her a compelling character because there are times where she stretches the amount of sympathy we can have for her to its limits. What saves her from becoming impossible to cheer for is that the crimes that the other people have committed, or would commit, are so heinous that in a sense it feels justified.
There’s an especially potent scene–which I won’t ruin–that completely subverts what we’ve come to expect up until that point. When you see it you will know what I mean, but the way it plays with the Cassie character and her motivation is truly inspired and was such a welcome reprieve in the process. It really broke her down and helped flesh her out.
Fennell is a talented writer. The script is full of life. The blueprint of the revenge flick is there and she could have easily embraced that and made a decent film, but instead she entrances the viewer with witty dialogue, a slightly dark sense of humour and some twists and turns that occasionally get quite tense. Cassie is not a superpowered woman with massive combat experience; she is just a girl in her twenties that is driven by rage and morality (albeit questionable morality at times).
In grounding this in the real world to some degree she was able to explore what might actually happen if a woman were to do this. Even as men crumble before her, there’s always this fear that due to the general superior physical strength of men that it could turn at any given moment. And to be honest, making Cassie a killing machine wouldn’t have been believable anyway, so this as the best course of action.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features.
As a director Fennell also shows a lot of potential. I wasn’t captivated by the stylistic flourishes to the point that I consider this one of the best directorial offerings of the year–I mention this because the Flickmetic Awards will be coming up soon–but it’s definitely a cut above your typical fare.
There’s a playfulness in regards to where the camera is placed, but the most noticeable choice is how she uses colour and sound. In fact, I would say that the way in which she uses both is more crucial to the feeling of female empowerment than the dialogue or her actions. They embody femininity in a strong manner but it doesn’t go overboard. There are musical choices that threaten to do so but it hit that sweet spot of being endearing while also trying to get across that women can be powerful. It’s not like the Batwoman trailer from last year that just ended up being silly.
Carey Mulligan–who I’ve unfortunately only seen in a couple films–helps bring it all together. She’s given a rather challenging character because she has to demonstrate a certain amount of physical dominance, be drunk, be charming (despite her solitary and gloomy nature), be funny and also keep this character close enough to the viewer that we don’t lose sight of her goals. We need to feel empathy or she doesn’t work and Mulligan, even in her darkest moments, can seduce us. Often times she encapsulates all of these features in one scene, switching as needed, flawlessly and instantly.
I also need to send some Christmas love to Bo Burnham, who plays opposite to Mulligan. He is such a ridiculously dynamic artist. I’m a huge fan of his stand-up comedy because it is unique, but Eighth Grade was also a film from 2018 that I adored. His character is hugely important to Cassie, and Burnham manages to be awkward but appealing.
There are some minor flaws scattered throughout, such as occasionally lingering too long on one scene or the reactions of certain characters. Some of the jokes don’t land and some of the emotional beats don’t quite get where they need to be. I only give these a cursory glance because they are relatively ineffectual while still being worth mentioning.
If you wanted to nitpick you could and say that she wouldn’t get away with any of this, or that it’s too cinematic narratively, but I was never dragged out of the film by that. It’s a movie and so long as I’m able to suspend disbelief it’s fine. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect and that I wasn’t tugged in the wrong direction periodically.
Promising Young Woman fires at toxicity. I have my aforementioned problems with its fundamentals but I’m also well aware that others will praise it for its incorrigible–and mildly comical–ambition. I suppose your mileage with the overarching message will vary depending on where you align. With me it hurt the film a lot more than I would have liked because the foundation is shaky. I do praise for some ways in which it critiques society. However, what’s most important is that if you separate it from its core message is it still a successful film? Undoubtedly.
He is actually a good boy who only treats women right. He bites me, though.
THAT'S ENOUGH, GET TO THE SCORE
A MOVIE FULL OF NICE GUYS (AND GIRLS) [THIS IS SARCASM]
Promising Young Woman is unflinching in what it wants to accomplish while not being overly serious. It definitely has drama, tension and emotional impact–even if it trips occasionally with this–but Fennell also instilled a sense of humour into the experience, which in turn gave it its own identity. I had some problems with it more on sociological grounds, but I still really enjoyed my time with it.