That is about as much as the trailer for Promising Young Woman gives away. An orchestral cover of Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ plays in the background, a popular song reinvented as a tense, apprehensive score for the film's protagonist - Cassie (Carrey Mulligan) - whose vigilante acts school men that are unlikely to be held accountable of sexual assault.
This subversion of a female pop classic into something darker reflects the mood of the film, whose soundtrack also features Paris Hilton and Charli XCX; it is never bleak, despite the subject matter. Cassie wears floral dresses, works in a brightly lit coffee shop and her parents' house, where she lives, is decorated almost entirely in pink. Director Emerald Fennell was a showrunner on Killing Eve, and that darkly comedic tone is tangible.
Upon the arrival of an old face from a past life that Cassie is eager to move away from, the film is propelled forward by more personal acts of revenge, as we learn about Cassie’s past. Fennel takes us on a moral journey across individuals, the institutions they often represent, and how they are letting down women. She invites the audience to reconsider their own attitudes and actions, in the same way Cassie cleverly teaches each character a lesson.
Fennel demonstrates that rape is not just a lone wolf on a dark street, but an act encouraged and facilitated by all of society. But disappointingly, law enforcement is excluded from this group. Without giving too much away, although the ending is unconventional, the police are ultimately one of the “good guys” who arrive to save the day.
Fennel demonstrates that rape is not just a lone wolf on a dark street, but an act encouraged and facilitated by all of society.
Take a film like Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), for example, that so effectively rallies against America’s racism, that when the sirens of a police car arrive at the end of the film, it is far from a guarantee of a good ending. Fennel spends the entirety of the film portraying a system that has failed Cassie, then portrays that same system as a vehicle for justice by the end of the film. This would be my only criticism of Promising Young Woman.
Otherwise, it is extremely watchable, visually slick and full of captivating dialogue. Carey Mulligan gives an emotionally powerful performance, portraying a woman carrying the burden of trauma, a load which we can see Cassie carrying in every scene thanks to the subtleties of Mulligan’s performance.
Much has also been made of Bo Burnham’s casting as Cassie’s love interest, and in the midst of this dark comedy, there are tender moments of romance between Burnham and Mulligan’s characters. This is Fennel’s greatest strength as she brings out powerful performances from her whole cast in order to bring about the maximum impact of her message.
I just wish she could have ended the film with a more rebellious act of justice.