Revenge movies have traditionally been the domain of fantasy, of an acting out a deeper, imagined strength through excessive violence. Quentin Tarantino movies like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds have made violent revenge a cottage industry, righting wrongs in the most outlandish and unrealistic of ways. In writer/director Emerald Fennell’s stunning debut film, Promising Young Woman, however, revenge is positioned more as a moral imperative than a bloody catharsis, and it is in this approach that this film achieves its greatest effect.
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a former medical student who has never gotten over the trauma of her best friend’s brutal rape while they were in college. When nothing happened to the attackers because the college covered it up to protect the men involved, Cassie set about to exact her own form of justice by laying traps for men in bars, posing as intoxicated, daring those with evil intentions to take advantage, prompting panic and anger when she drops the charade and challenges their motives. It’s a dangerous game, but we soon understand that Cassie has long ago given herself over to her impulses, perhaps to her own detriment.
As we get to know Cassie better, we see how truly broken she is. Forced to move back in with her parents, hardly able to keep a job, driven by her desire to seek revenge, Cassie is more a poster child for therapy than a heroic avenger. But this is where Fennell and Mulligan strike a brilliant chord in creating this character who is relatable in her pain and motives, but just a little too far gone to feel reachable. Life’s cruelty becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for Cassie, as she only sees what she’s looking for. And even when a moment of joy manages to seep through a small crack, it quickly evaporates, confirming her world view.
The controlled chaos that Cassie’s life has become is intoxicating to watch, and Mulligan’s performance is seething in its rage and chilling in its intent. Dark comedy comes at the expense of Cassie’s mental health though, and, as an audience, you start to feel guilty for rooting for her and cheering her victims’ punishment. This is a person who is clearly mentally ill, someone who needs serious help, yet is unseen, invisible. Cassie is beautiful, young, healthy, and acts out every woman’s fantasy at how to get back at all the douchebags in the world. And yet, even we, as an audience, ignore Cassie’s pain by cheering her vengeance. Fennell’s indictment of society as a whole begins with us.
Promising Young Woman is a magnificent exercise in psychological warfare delivered in a distractingly beautiful package. Fennell’s screenplay is funny, witty and biting. Mulligan’s performance is transcendent, layered and vibrant, cool, precise, and absolutely heartbreaking. This film takes you on a journey you will not anticipate, and ends with a brutally brilliant finish that is disturbing yet absolutely perfect.
Whatever you do, do not underestimate the power of this film. It will take you to some really dark places and says some things that are uncomfortable, even upsetting, but the effectiveness of the telling is so remarkable and unique, you just can’t help but enjoy every second of the ride.