Dir: Emerald Fennell. Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Connie Britton, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Adam Brody, Chris Lowell. 15, 113 mins
In the first few minutes of Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan’s Cassie walks along the street with blood dripping down her leg. She’s just left the home of a would-be rapist she tricked by pretending to be blind drunk, before snapping to sober attention. We don’t see what she did to him, but it must have been gory. Then the camera pans up. It isn’t blood – it’s ketchup from the hot dog she’s eating. If you’ve come for violent revenge, Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut seems to be saying, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Promising Young Woman is an exquisite yet troubling film, altogether knottier than its trailer would have you believe. Shot with playful precision, it is a pastel-pink Russian doll: a psychological drama inside a revenge fantasy inside a romcom. Not for nothing is it up for Best Picture at this month’s Oscars – to the delight of some and the irritation of others.
Cassie is an antisocial med-school dropout, still living with her parents at 30 and working in a coffee shop run by her only friend Gail (Laverne Cox). Her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, deliciously weird as ever, and Clancy Brown) despair at their daughter’s aimlessness, but she’s actually laser-focused on two things: catching out self-professed “nice guys” who prey on vulnerable drunk women, and tracking down all the people who wronged her dead best friend, Nina. We never meet Nina, but we learn that she was raped at college while a gang of onlookers cheered. The rapist graduated magna cum laude. Nina dropped out and killed herself. Everybody remembers the rapist fondly. Nobody remembers Nina.
Cassie has a list. There’s the college dean (Connie Britton) who failed to take action when Nina reported her rape; the former friend (Alison Brie) who accused her of crying wolf; the lawyer (Alfred Molina) who hounded her into dropping a court case. She wants to see if they’re repentant, and plays twisted tricks on them if they aren’t. “What would you have me do?” the college Dean asks Cassie. “Ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this?”
Fennell, who wrote the screenplay, resists simply following the male blueprint for revenge fantasy. She knows that there are as many opportunistic beta males as there are apex predators, that female anger is not straightforward, and that the outlets for it are rarely cathartic. Beyond the candy-coated camp and retro-pop soundtrack, there is little that is glamorous about this film. Cassie is righteous but she is also pathetic, her anger described by Fennell as “like an ingrown toenail”. Mulligan excels at this. Slipping with ease between the genres that Promising Young Woman flirts with, she nonetheless resists playing Cassie as a caricature, even when the film is at its most heightened. There’s a weary sadness behind her sardonic smirk.
Many of Promising Young Woman’s most horrifying moments could have played as comedy or romance in a different film. Fennell toys with this idea by casting Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a coke-addled creep, and The OC’s Adam Brody as a charming one, both characters a whisper away from men they’ve played before. Briefly, when Cassie starts dating her former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), the film turns into a full-on romantic comedy, which might have been genuinely sweet if it wasn’t baked into a film determined to wrongfoot us at every turn.
In fact, it even trips itself up at times. Laverne Cox is under-used, there to “have-fun-you-two-oh-my-god!” the white couple, while the fact that the police don’t just escape condemnation but save the day sits uncomfortably.
Ambitious, though, the film certainly is. One critic notoriously suggested that “one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for Margot Robbie”. But it’s Mulligan who is Promising Young Woman’s centre of gravity, offsetting the film’s cartoonish chutzpah with a twitchy vulnerability, and picking away at the scabs of female trauma. Those looking for catharsis will not find it in Promising Young Woman. This is not a neutered version of what could have been, but a more complicated one.