There has never been a worse time to be you.
There you are, just trying to do your thing, being an awkward, nonthreatening bro dude. The kind of guy who’ll shake your head mock-disapprovingly when a friend tells a sexist joke. The kind of guy who walks the nervous, matronly office receptionist to her car after work (even though you think the odds of someone attacking her are laughable). The kind of guy who helps your hot, out-of-your league neighbour with her groceries (and you didn’t even stare at her tits once).
But what if an opportunity came along where a woman hadn’t said yes, but hadn’t explicitly said no either? You gotta shoot that shot, right? You’d never, ever rape a woman. Absolutely not. You have a mom and maybe even sisters. This is completely different. You’re a Nice Guy. You’ve earned this. You’re owed this.
And you are going to hate this movie.
Promising Young Woman* is an acerbic revenge flick, with the requisite calculated set-ups and delicious take-downs. But at its core it’s about how impenetrable grief and unresolved trauma can distort you so profoundly that you become a different person, with wants and needs completely outside the realm of who you thought you were. It’s a well so deep it can feel bottomless, and the ripples affect everyone around you.
If you’re expecting Carey Mulligan to be in fighting fuck-toy mode, ripping through under-written bad guys with a sword as sharp as her tongue, and doing it in come-fuck-me boots and a bustier, this movie will disappoint you.
Carey Mulligan is Cassie, a bright and broken young woman whose best friend Nina was sexually assaulted when they were both in med school. Years after dropping out, Cassie is living with her parents and working at a coffee shop. But her nights are occupied by a strange hobby.Every weekend, Cassie goes to a different bar, and acts like she’s too drunk to take care of herself. Inevitably a nice guy like you offers to get her home safely, but somehow they always end up at his place instead. Once there, Cassie will reveal that she is not drunk at all. What happens to these nice guys? Oh come on, I’m not going to tell you. That would ruin the fun. You just have to watch it and find out.
Spoiler Alert: you’re not going to like it.
Writer/Director Emerald Fennell sets Cassie’s story in a heightened version of our world, just a few degrees from our reality, where everything is bright, shiny, and imperceptibly off. Cassie wears candy-coated pastels and ribbons in her hair. Her parent’s home looks like a 1975 Sears furniture showroom—a souvenir from simpler times. The kitschy coffee shop is a scaled-up version of a child’s playset. Looks, as we learn, can be deceiving.
It’s not just the art direction, set design, and costumes which contribute to the creeping off-kilter sensation. The clever casting of actors like Adam Brody, Bo Burnham, Sam Richardson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse , and Chris Lowell – all of whom have appeared in countless other films and shows as the sweet, nerdy nice guy – lulls us into a false sense of security. This world may seem make-believe, but the behavior of these men, as most women will tell you, is disturbingly real.
Add to this a soundtrack featuring bubblegum-pop earworms, a Juice Newton ballad, and a skin-crawlingly raw cover of Britney Spears’ Toxic, and you’ll find that you don’t know who (or what) to trust. This ambiguity creates a world where anything can happen. The possibilities might terrify you.
When Cassie reunites with Ryan, a former med school classmate, she learns that Nina’s college rapist is living his dream life as a respected doctor about to marry a model (because you nice guys always manage to fail upwards). She ditches her dangerous nocturnal routine for a targeted, scorched-earth requital.
Just in case you were wondering, Cassie doesn’t let the women who wronged Nina off the hook either. Internalized misogyny is insidious, shameful, and, luckily, completely reversible (so is regular misogyny, for those taking notes).
Don’t worry, though. Cassie’s vengeance isn’t indiscriminate. She shows empathy and mercy. She’s willing to give people a chance to defend themselves before she delivers the consequences she believes they’ve earned. This is where the film veers from the typical revenge flick and goes deeper. Mulligan’s scene with Alfred Molina’s contrite lawyer is particularly gutting. As thrilling as it is to live vicariously through Cassie as she dispatches punishments to the deserving, we just really want her to be freed from her exhausting pain.
Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of a woman stunted by grief and fuelled with roiling rage is electric. Fennell’s shrewd script gives Mulligan many heavy scenes to play—but more impressive is the way she delivers some jaw-dropping, laugh-out-loud one-liners. The tone glides organically from comedy, to romance, to thriller, to intense drama, and never loses its balance. An impressive feat for a directorial debut, let alone one about a topic most of us still have trouble acknowledging.
Much like Cassie herself, Promising Young Woman doesn’t care if you like it or not, because the point is to not be neutral. It’s time to pick a side. If this film makes you feel attacked, it probably says more about you than it does about the film. If you value your own comfort over a woman’s safety, this movie will make you realize you’re not the nice guy you thought you were.
*title is a nod to convicted rapist Brock Turner being referred to as a ‘promising young man’.