Director: Emerald Fennell
Writer: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, Jennifer Coolidge
Note: contains plot spoilers.
The film begins with a woman who is fall down drunk at a bar. She is alone, semi-conscious, struggling to prop herself upright. That’s when she’s noticed by three men. They grin, laugh and roll their eyes at her. One them – Jerry – steps forward, and declares himself a Nice Guy, who’ll take her home. No funny stuff.
Of course on the ride home in the back of the taxi, Jerry suggests they change course for his apartment. And although she is still completely out of it, he takes her to his room, lays her on his bed and begins kissing her and makes moves to start undressing her. Big mistake.
That’s when Cassie abruptly changes her tone. Her slur is gone. Her eyes fix themselves on Jerry. She is going to teach him a lesson he will never forget.
This is the memorable opening scene from Promising Young Woman, a timely revenge thriller about Cassie, a woman who suffered an undisclosed trauma in college who has now had it her mission to “educate” Nice Guys one at a time using the method of entrapment that snares Jerry. And from seeing her pocketbook which has a list of names, she’s been at this for a long, long time.
Two things occur that shake up Cassie’s world. During the day she works, disinterestedly, in a coffee shop. She serves Ryan, an old school friend, who asks her out on a date. As you’d expect, she is incredibly dubious and protective of her own feelings, and it takes a lot of charm and courting from Ryan to show her he’s a nice guy and not a Nice Guy.
During one particular conversation, he discloses that a mutual schoolfriend Al is returning from London and is planning to get married in their town. This lights a fire under Cassie as we begin to unravel her past and learn that Al raped her childhood bestfriend Nina who subsequently took her own life. Al’s return is a chance for Cassie to finally get revenge.
Before Cassie visits Al’s bucks party to enact her revenge, she visits several people who played a hand in the final stages of Nina’s life. An old friend Madison who didn’t believe Nina and discredited her story. The medical school dean Elizabeth who dismissed Nina’s case for lacking evidence. Al’s lawyer who is riddled with guilt and feels complicit in letting a guilty man walk free. In her own creative way, Cassie exacts a measure of vengeance on each of these people. Although tonally the films are worlds apart, these scenes reminded me of Spotlight and the line about how “it took a village” to let down the people who were abused by the church priests. So many are complicit and turn a blind eye or actively make it harder for the abused to get justice.
Carey Mulligan turns in an incredible performance in Promising Young Woman. It’s a tricky role. Revenge thrillers by their nature are a very OTT genre but giving the real world sensitivity of the #MeToo subject matter, how do you play this part? Mulligan walks a tightrope act where her quiet moments of solitude portray a genuine sadness and believable sense of grief but once she has a Nice Guy in her sights she exudes a chaotic energy and boldness that absolutely commands your attention.
There is a real cleverness to the casting of the guys in Promising Young Woman too. Casting directors Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu have assembled a Who’s Who of Hollywood nice guys who have made successful careers out of being moralistic, charming and likeable. Not the bigwigs like Tom Hanks. They would feel out of place in a movie like this. But Adam Brody (The O.C), Chris Lowell (Veronica Mars), Sam Richardson (Veep) and Christoph Mintz-Plasse (Superbad) are all inspired pieces of casting. Guys that the audience are automatically programmed to look upon favourably and who’s behaviour is incredibly jarring when they reveal their true nature and attitudes towards women.
This is Emerald Fennell’s first film. It is both ambitious and audacious. When assembled next to the rest of this year’s excellent catalogue of Best Picture nominees, Promising Young Woman has a rough-hewn quality to it that sets it apart from the others. Tonally, it’s a little all over the place and the film occasionally strains under the weight of its own ambition and ideas. Having said that, I still think this is an incredible first feature and I’ve always admired creators who swing for the fences, even if not every idea fully sticks (think Guillermo Del Toro, Stephen King etc).
Promising Young Woman has a rather divisive ending. It kind of feels like Fennell wrote herself into a corner and I’ve read that multiple different endings were discussed with the studio, with an even darker ending than the one we got ultimately being dismissed for being too tough for the audience to handle. The actual ending we get is rather contrived and well and truly stretches credulity but I guess it feels cathartic in its own way. Cassie herself was seeking a closure she would never find and this ending sort of caps that off whilst making sure the abusers face sufficient retribution for their actions.
Ultimately, Promising Young Woman is a fantastic revenge thriller that is both highly topical and hugely entertaining. It manages to get pulses racing without ever overtly resorting to excessive gore, with the implied violence from the threat of Mulligan’s words being more than ample.