“Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”
“Promising Young Woman” follows Cassandra, who has dropped out of medical school and is now working in a coffee shop and living with her parents. She is also still navigating the traumatic experiences of some specific events that took place during her time in medical school.
This is an absolute firecracker of a film. Director Emerald Fennell and actress Carey Mulligan have crafted a blistering, terrifying tour-de-force that examines every inch and crevice of feminine rage. What happens when a woman finally has enough? What happens when a woman is subjected to too much abuse and mental turmoil? The answer might surprise you, but it shouldn’t. Many might call the lengths that Mulligan’s character Cassandra goes in this film unrealistic, but I could only watch in awe at all the things she did here in subdued agreement. The trailers for this film led me to believe that this was about something else in terms of the reasoning behind Cassandra’s warpath of rage. There’s a nice level of subversion of expectation when it’s revealed what exactly Mulligan is doing, why she is doing it and who she is doing it for. I won’t spoil anything so you can learn for yourself what lies beyond any initial trappings you may have about this film.
One of the best things this film does is that it does not try to mount a smear campaign against all men. Fennell is smart enough to navigate around this very broad sentiment, even if the men in the film certainly might warrant this response. Fennell’s screenplay and direction are top notch — it’s almost unbelievable this is her directorial debut. She has such an immensely strong vision and her screenplay only further helps to sell everything she’s saying here. Her grasp on her creation is astonishing. I cannot wait to see what she will do next, and until then, I will be waiting with baited breath.
Carey Mulligan is a performer I’ve long been enamored with due to her ability to kill just about any role, but her performance here might just be her very best. She’s so insanely capable of curating a stunning array of emotions in mere minutes, that I’d dare to call it dangerous at how fast I sided with her. I was the literal embodiment of Lucille Bluth saying “Good for her.”
What I find most interesting about the film is it has familiar beats you might find in other revenge films, but this one focuses more on the grief that follows afterwards and how that grief can affect the ones around you who may not even be directly harmed. Fennell understands this thoroughly and uses this to her utmost advantage in telling her story.
I haven’t seen a film quite like “Promising Young Woman” in a long time. Each time I thought I pinpointed where I believed the film to be going, it took a whole new, unexpected turn. This is most notable in that absolutely insane ending. I just stared at the screen, mouth agape and audibly said, “Oh—oh shit!” It was a bold move going the route it took, but it payed off in spades. It’s absolutely shocking, but I was utterly transfixed, much like with the rest of the film. The film has a distinctive, visual style to boot that features some of my favorite cinematography of the last year. A moment near the end involving sunlight is like a painting, and the scene where Cassandra stands in the middle of a blue outline frame is stunning, then when Bo Burnham’s character reaches down to kiss her slightly in and out of that blue frame is a damn near perfect biblical image. The framing and visual style of this film is so aesthetically pleasing in many ways.
2020 was a very strange year, especially in the world of film, but “Promising Young Woman” is so fantastic, so shocking and so unique — it will absolutely be the film that defined 2020 for me. Believe the hype.
Featured image: Courtesy Focus Features