Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (2020)
The trailer and premise of Promising Young Woman tell a story of revenge. Righting wrongs, giving people a taste of their own medicine, making them pay. While these elements are very much incorporated in writer-director Emerald Fennell’s startling debut feature, what ruminates most about this film are a severe lack of justice and the aftermath of derailed grief. The tragedy that the story goes where it does, that toxic masculinity is perpetuated constantly, is what Fennell sits with…to an engaging and devastating extent. Promising Young Woman turns the tables on the men and women who are complicit in rape culture, while also exploring through the story's protagonist a woman so utterly consumed by grief and the frequent memories of who she lost.
Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan) feels distant from the world she lives in, understandably so. Everyone said she had promise; with a bright future ahead, she was on course to becoming a doctor until an incident derailed the course of her life. Having dropped out of med school, Cassie now works at a coffee shop by day. She also lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), which causes them much worry. One morning she sees a gift in the family room, forgetting that the occasion is her 30th birthday. As she unwraps a large pink suitcase, her mother wonders why her daughter is still under their roof. If Cassie wanted a house/marriage/kids, she’d have done it, she assures her friend and boss Gail (Laverne Cox). What consumes Cassie so intensely, to the point where it interferes with her everyday life, is complicated grief. She carries the pain of what happened to her best friend, Nina Fisher. She is consumed by grief at every waking moment, which sees her not only heartbreakingly demand justice from ghosts of the past but also step into dangerous scenarios. By night, Cassie goes to different clubs and acts like she’s too drunk to stand. Every night, a “nice guy” goes over to see if she’s okay. They take her to their homes, where she reveals her soberness when they force themselves onto her. Cassie confronts their behaviour by inflicting the absolute truth upon them, fueled by a persistent yearning for them to actually see the error of their ways.
Emerald Fennell has an incredibly clear vision from the start, opening her film with an energetic pop song in contrast to the disturbing “nice guy” encounter that follows. Fennell has a confident level of storytelling that raises challenging conversations in the form of a pastel aesthetic and a pop soundtrack on surface level. The film is an engaging blend of genres and subverts expectations from one moment to the next. It’s astonishing how these contrasting elements are handled in the film to reflect the protagonist, who is sorting through grief as a shadow of who she once was. When Cassie meets Ryan (Bo Burnham) at her coffee shop, and he recognizes her from med school, the two seem to match each other’s forthright energy. For a tiny moment, a sugar rush of potential romance opens up. The film morphs with elements of romance genre, complete with a pop song sing-along and couples' montage, while also addressing Cassie’s hesitance to start a relationship when all her energy is put towards the case of Nina. Throughout the film Cassie confronts people of the past in relation to her best friend, from school friend Madison (Alison Brie) to former dean Walker (Connie Britton) to case lawyer Jordan (Alfred Molina), all of whom are complicit and meet the anger of a woman who wants justice served. One of the most remarkable scenes in the film sees Walker, far more concerned with a man’s reputation and giving him “the benefit of the doubt,” met with the power of perspective that Cassie wields in front of her. The film feels incredibly honest in its depiction of culpability and the toxic environments that continuously protect sinister behaviour.
While it is captivating to watch Cassie serve the truth in obliteration of those who are complicit, what resonates beyond these moments is the devastating grief that sees her fight for justice on behalf of Nina, partly in response to a grossly unjust system that allows rapists like Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) to move on without a care in the world. In a powerfully revealing scene where Cassie visits Nina’s mom Mrs. Fisher (Molly Shannon), the two discuss Cassie’s regrets and Mrs. Fisher urges her to finally move on with her life. She tries to put the past behind her, and is met with yet another example of ingrained toxic misogyny which catapults the film into its fourth chapter. What makes this chapter of Promising Young Woman so devastating is its conversations around justice and remorse (specifically the lack thereof). The truth with which the protagonist confronts everyone in her path is met with the sinister reality of the world she distanced herself from. That the emotional, mental, and physical ripples of distress are unwavering is a tragic watch that has opened so many necessary conversations. Perhaps this is the direction Fennell intends to go in, encompassing feelings of rage and portraying it on screen to show a harsh reality. Her storytelling in this moment has such an emotional, angering, and wincing effect.
On board with the writer-director every step of the way is the film’s star Carey Mulligan, who delivers a tour de force that will continue to resonate for years to come. She’s outstanding in an immersive and harrowing way, as she portrays Cassie with a haunting truthfulness that broke me. Her acute ability to embody all the candy coated tonal shifts and also maintain a grounded approach is truly remarkable to watch. She carries the film powerfully, and shares compelling screen time with a supporting cast of characters who mostly represent a societal smoke screen of sinister behaviour and toxic misogyny. During an interview Emerald Fennell gave at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, she commented on how evasive these topics are culturally and how so much is sugarcoated to be made “tolerable”. She turns this on its head in her devastatingly compelling debut feature, making a crystal clear stance in challenging toxicity and never wavering from her ambitious approach.
Promising Young Woman releases on demand January 15th.