Thursday 11 November 2021

Movie Review: Promising Young Woman (2020)

A revenge drama with a difference, Promising Young Woman explores the implications of campus sexual violence against women. The film is smart, witty, and intentionally uncomfortable.

Medical school drop-out Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) just turned 30. She is friendless, still lives at home with her exasperated parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), and works a non-job at a coffee shop. At night, Cassie trawls bars, pretending to be drunk and waiting to be picked up by preying men before she turns the tables on them. Her one-woman revenge campaign honours her friend Nina, who was sexually assaulted in medical school.

Cassie bumps into former classmate Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham), now a successful pediatrician. He appears trustworthy and she carefully tiptoes into a relationship. Meanwhile she learns that Nina's assailant Al Monroe, who never faced any consequences, is back in town and about to get married. Cassie extends her revenge campaign to include all those who failed Nina, including former friend Madison (Alison Brie), lawyer Jordan Green (Alfred Molina, uncredited), and the college's Dean Walker (Connie Britton).

An acerbic condemnation of a culture excusing men and victimizing women, Promising Young Woman is uncompromising. With a mixture of dark humour and searing honesty, director and writer Emerald Fennell delivers a focused punch to the gut of a society tolerating men's bad judgement at the expense of women suffering life-changing trauma.

Cassie's life was knocked out of its orbit after the assault on her best friend Nina and the subsequent non-action by everyone who should have helped. Two women are therefore summarily discarded, destined to never fulfil their promise, and worse still branded as authors of their misery, while the men who unleashed violence receive a pass and carry on to career success and respectability. Here Cassie's rage and bottled-up anguish merge into a self-devised outlet to trap men into acknowledging their bad behaviour and maybe more.

Cassie's use of alcohol to turn the tables on her aggressors provides a clever underpinning to her tactics. But Fennell's script excels by not over-elaborating, and indeed holds back some secrets allowing uncertainty to become part of the narrative, just as in most cases of assault. And so Nina's story is a spectre, just an outline of tragedy hovering over events. Cassie keeps a small notebook to record her bar encounters with men, but the difference between the red and black stick counters is never quite revealed. Later, curious ambiguity shrouds her exact plans for frenemy Madison and lawyer Green. The intent is never in doubt; just the levels of malevolence in the execution. 

And just when it appears to be settling down, the film also unleashes a series of twists with exquisite pacing. A cell phone, a bystander's identity, and then a startling encounter with original predator Al Monroe all carry an added sting to the heart of women victims of assault.

In a magnificent performance Carey Mulligan turns into a chameleon, externally adopting various personas to achieve Cassie's objectives and cover up the emotional hollowness inside. The supporting cast is deep in talent, Bo Burnham offering a likeable maybe boyfriend - perhaps a hope for males after all? -  while in small one-scene roles Alfred Molina and Connie Britton bring to life enablers and perpetuators.

Gutsy, painful, and resolute, Promising Young Woman redresses the balance.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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