Sometime around my Sophomore year of high school, word spread that one my class’s “hottest” cheerleaders had a series of viral videos going around – private ones she’d shot for her boyfriend. It spread like wildfire and, by that night, people were already AIMing (blast from the past) each other links, burning copies of the files onto CDs to share in P.E. the next day. I don’t remember specific details of how it escalated, but I do remember walking up to my second period math class, and seeing a group of guys huddling around someone’s iPod video (another trip down memory lane). When I asked what was going on, a extremely brutish, wannabe football jock who liked to make false claims (i.e. he’d hung out with a lingerie model at E3) exclaimed something along the line of: “There’s a video of ******* fingering herself, man!”
I’m ashamed to admit I watched the video. Not that it excuses it, but I was a self-absorbed 15-year-old, who had still never been on a real date before. I also, frankly, really wanted to seem as cool as humanly possible, as I’d lost most all my middle-school friends after rumors spread that I was bisexual (also involving AIM gossip), and most certainly tried to overcompensate for how I perceived others might see me. “Promising Young Woman,” has already developed its own narrative re: overcompensation and acceptance; a tantalizing revenge fable smart enough to realize why veering into straight-up serial killer territory would defeat its own purport, the movie has come under a bit of fire for the coda of its protagonist, its finger wagging approach, as well as the implications of a (deliberately) distressing ending – which takes a number of tonal swerves, concluding with a purging final deliverance. It’s a goddamn mic drop of genre taxidermy, turning the mission statement of male power fantasies on its head, flipping the script of Disneyfied fairy tale motifs adopted for romanticized ego reinforcement like Florence Pugh in a bear suit.
Starring Carey Mulligan in what very well may be the most impressive performance of an already insanely impressive career, “Promising Young Woman,” opens with a gut-bellying montage of bustling belt buckles, dockers, and skinny jeans, strobe lights pulsating as the camera cuts between waist-high close-ups of beer bellies shaking their stuff on the dance floor – many of these men likely first listening to the bodily urges stemming just below this region, instead of feeling the energy in the air. A group of bros at the bar spot a young lady, Cassandra (Mulligan), slumped in a curved cushion booth, all by her lonesome. Nothing out of their mouths is a surprise, and most all is internally cringe inducing. One of these upstanding gents, Jerry (Adam Brody), decides to be the nice guy he was raised to be and offers the (seemingly) radically intoxicated woman a ride home, ignoring all of her verbalized concerns, insisting via intimate physicality that he’s there for her, all the way up to the moment he’s kissing her neck on his couch.
By the time he tries to take advantage of her in the bedroom, she surprises him with her real state of mind; a half-awake, “What’r you doing?” quickly snaps into a piercing, “What are you doing?“ Turns out, Cassandra’s favorite late-night activity consists of playing the dead-drunk girl and seeing what kind of guy will try to snatch her up. If they cross the boundary of consent, she gives them a fearsome lecture on rape culture, marking each offender with a red tally in her diary. As we see, most guys like to think they’re much more respectful than they are, deep down at heart. But Cassandra’s predatory exercise has come at the cost of any real hope for human connection, her life having become both a self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling prophecy. Her vengeance having morphed into a kind of misguided coping mechanism in the form of traumatic inertia, the thrill of rage shaming a certain kind of horrible person overtaking her ability to create any kind of meaningful social bond. She has a right to the chip on her shoulder, but her solutions long ago stopped being healthy, drowning out all hopeful possibilities of moving past the pain.
Still living at home with her parents (Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, both fascinating casting choices) and working a thankless barista job by day (Laverne Cox, playing her boss), Cassandra bumps into an old school friend, Ryan (Bo Burnham). It’s pretty apparent that this guy’s harboring feelings for Cassandra, and, despite him saying a few careless things, it seems like she may actually see some sort of spark between them, but her attitude suddenly changes upon him mentioning a mutual acquaintance from their class, who is about to get married. Dismissing Ryan’s attempts to get to know her better in favor of plotting elaborate payback schemes, sometimes aimed at specific targets – a couple of noxious encounters between Cassandra, her ex-friend Madison (Alison Brie, about as snooty as she was in “Happy Christmas”), and her old school dean (Connie Britton) illuminating that Cassandra’s fangs don’t only come out at night – it’s apparent that Cassandra’s stay-at-home existence is rooted in long-standing grief.
The first act of writer/director Emerald Fennell‘s (“Killing Eve”) movie fucking jolts, but the back half is when it truly gnashes. As Cassandra’s relationship with Ryan grows more complicated, so too does the emotional roller coaster of the goadingly deranged life she’s chosen. To reveal her deep-seated motives would definitely constitute hashtag spoilers, but it’s safe to say that Cassandra’s prowl the night scheme, rooted in a personal brand of justice, is one of the things that’s been called into question by the film’s detractors. Sexual assault survivors have pushed back against exactly what Cassandra’s actions accomplish, but perhaps the statement Fennel is aiming for is how empty universally accepted, empathetic sentiments about rape culture are; when the words complicit and complacent grow muddy, so too does who becomes culpable. We all make mistakes which can’t be undone, and other people pay the consequences.
This is reflected via the film’s revolving supporting players, almost all painfully well cast: an assemblage of try-hard gym buds and intellectual wokester wannabes (having friends that went to school with Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and his father being a regular customer at the store I manage on weekends, man that scene fucking slaps; I greatly look forward to all the pieces about McLovin’s ignorant make-up comment, one that’s all too common). Almost everyone acts as though it has already been unspokenly decided that they simply won’t talk about certain events. After all, it happened in the past, when they were just selfish kids, so why bring up such a taboo subject now? Why remind themselves of potential lives they’ve destroyed for perceived sexual agency at a time when seeming sexually mature/informed was what mattered most in life?
The more “Promising Young Women” fills out its world with self-satisfied characters, the more apparent of a genre study Fennell’s movie becomes. Genre is a conversation with itself, and Mulligan’s very quota could easily be read as representing assumed truths about how myopic narratives play out in the mind of individuals during impressionable periods of upbringing. Combining elements of slasher flicks and indie rom-coms, both Cassandra, and the film, come to embody a wolf in sheep’s clothing: like Little Red Riding Hood by way of Diablo Cody. Given the volatile nature of Fennell’s b-movie-lite narrative of choice, the script was likely somewhat dependent on the casting of its lead role, and Carey Mulligan is one of the few working actors whom the role’s shifting/shifty charismatic presence seems tailor made for.
One can easily image the performance of a Megan Fox, “Jennifer’s Body” bombshell, or even a snippy Aubrey Plaza type (given the cold stare aspects), but Mulligan sits somewhere in between, the final girl next door of a feminist exploitation flick, whom one could easily see finding success in the academic community. She fits the bill of study-buddy friend who got a perfect score on her SATs and/or one who fell into concert culture sometime after graduating; Mulligan plays Cassandra as neither and both – a shell of her potential, former, blossoming self, now pretending to be what everyone who tends to judges a book by its cover sees. A scene where she pays Britton’s Dean a visit, as well as one in which she shows up, unannounced, on Alfred Molina‘s doorstep, forever linger, just like the cloud hanging over Cassandra’s permanently affected psyche.
Walking the wobbly drunken tightrope bridging vindication and comeuppance, “Promising Young Woman,” serves as a cautionary tale in significantly more than one sense, and it will undoubtedly be read differently by viewers based on well… a few alarming factors. Tackling a subject as serious as sexual assault, especially through a narrative prodding the fickle line that binds earned retribution and outright revenge, there was never a remote chance that all critical parties would praise Emerald Fennell’s feature debut for sticking the landing. It’s not always an easy movie to watch (full disclosure: I myself started feeling sick to my stomach at one point, and grew distressingly concerned, before coming to grips with the fact that capturing the sensation in such fashion was the entire point), yet there is an air of underworld catharsis to its punctuating moments; while not a ranging bonfire of a release like “Midsommar,” it’s a deviously sanguine final exclamation, in a close to indescribably powerful sense. Striking one last chord of commiserating verity in the form of a sent text, Fennell’s movie is a contemporary folk apologue, a throbbing bestiary on internalized misogyny and agonizing venereal recompense.