We all know how vengeance should be served. The old adage spells it out so clearly. Comeuppances are most delicious, for the issuer at least, when some time has elapsed since the precipitating harm. That distance allows passion to cool into cunning, creating a response that is proportional, unforgettable, and final. We’ve been aware of this concept since the time of Shakespeare, at least. And there is an honored place in film for such stylized revenge, with countless examples to consider. Which is why any new variation on the theme gets so much attention. If done well, it can reset stakes and expectations. Carey Mulligan and director Emerald Fennell are attempting to do just that with “Promising Young Woman.”
Mulligan plays Cassandra, a seemingly listless underachiever with a secret nighttime hobby. She likes to turn the tables on the predatory men women like her often encounter at bars. We don’t know exactly why she feels compelled to do this, but we do quickly learn how good she is at it. If the plot never really advanced from there and all we got was a succession of enjoyable payback vignettes, this movie would work. That’s because of Carey Mulligan. She is so instantly believable as Cassandra, even without context. Her ability to shift from pretend helplessness to full, deadly control is a joy to watch and could definitely hold my attention for a couple of hours. But to take its place in the grand tradition of films like “Hard Candy,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” or even “Thelma and Louise,” “Promising Young Woman” needed to be more. And it is. This story isn’t as operatic as the “Kill Bill” movies, but it takes its retribution responsibilities just as seriously.
The first act traces a typical revenge fantasy contour which, as I’ve said, succeeds nicely. Especially as we eventually start to learn why it’s all happening. But then things take a big tonal turn into full-on rom-com territory and the effect is unsettling. I have no doubt, given what happens later, that this wrong-footing is intentional. But a jarring storytelling choice, even a purposeful one, can pull you out of a narrative. That’s true here, but thankfully not to a fatal degree. The chemistry between Mulligan and Bo Burnham has its clunky moments, but they generally gel. Until they don’t. But that’s already saying too much. Trust me that things escalate very quickly, and they do not go the way you think they will. The whole point of the sweeter second part of the movie is to get our guard down before starting the third. Because it’s the final act of “Promising Young Woman” that really makes this take on an old idea feel new.
First-time feature director Emerald Fennell said during an interview at Sundance last year that this film is a dark comedy and a revenge thriller. She’s definitely half right. The extent to which any of “Promising Young Woman” could be considered funny rests on how much humor you find in terrible people trying to squirm their way out of trouble they’ve earned. It requires some sympathy. But, with the notable exception of Cassie’s father, the men in this movie represent the worst of us. Her punishment of their habitual crimes feels fitting and fully satisfying. But I don’t remember laughing much, which makes me wonder if I missed something essential. Like maybe I was wrong-footed by Fennell’s script in the wrong way. Whether or not that’s true, or even matters, this movie got me thinking about personal agency and male hostility and the thousand different ways society protects people who share my race and gender. We even get to star in most of the revenge movies! But not this one. Carey Mulligan might be inhabiting ground originally cleared by Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood but she is doing so in a way they never could. She challenges our most basic notions of justice. Who gets it delivered to them. And more importantly, who gets to mete it out.
Taken at face value, “Promising Young Woman” is a first-rate thriller with some truly shocking twists and turns. It’s also a biting social commentary that pulls none of its punches. Regardless of how you choose to view the experience, Carey Mulligan will force you to ponder how our culture coddles it’s promising young men.