Cassandra Thomas is a hell of an actress. (The same goes for Carey Mulligan, who plays her.) The first time we see her in the devious revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, she looks as if she’s about to pass out drunk, as she struggles to stay sitting up in a club packed with onlookers and predators-on-the-prowl. It takes commitment to appear this helpless, to stumble down a flight of stairs on the arm of that nice guy who offered to take you home. But the payoff is worth it, for us and presumably for Cassie, who waits until just the right moment — after the nice guy has provided her with more booze and slipped off her panties — to snap to attention, fully conscious and fully sober. “Hey,” she says, in a voice that could freeze your bloodstream. “What are you doing?”
We never actually see what happens to the nice guy, though the angry-looking hash mark Cassie carves into her notebook the next morning doesn’t bode well. He’s the latest in her book of personal conquests, men who see her looking hammered in public and swoop in with concerned smiles, eager to take her home and take advantage, only to reel back in horror (or worse, resentment) when they realize they’ve been played. Cassie’s confrontational question aside, it’s clear enough what these men are doing, and also what she’s doing. Offering herself up as live bait, she’s making the world a little safer for women and a little less comfortable for rapists, one supremely nasty shock at a time. Though it seems like it would be interesting if Promising Young Woman was consistently the vignettes of Cassie’s nightly expeditions — especially since they carry such sting and broad satire — it’s probably wiser that the narrative soon moves on to more intriguing business. What led Cassie to launch her personal vigilante campaign in the first place turns out to be the real subject of this sugar-laced acid rush of a movie from English filmmaker and actor Emerald Fennell.
Known for show-running Killing Eve, Fennell’s debut feature is one that hums with ambiguity and menace, daring us to try and pin it down. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? (The recent reclassification by the Golden Globes speaks to the possible confusion.) Is it a gleeful candy-colored exploitation movie? Or is it an emotionally honest, psychologically sharp portrait of a woman processing a heartbreaking burden of guilt and trauma? Promising Young Woman tries its best to split the difference. It seeks to meld Cassie’s pain and our pleasure, then paper over the cracks with tonal pivots, slick style, and, most of all, Mulligan herself, with her remarkable ability to project both steeliness and vulnerability. Because the movie is all about duality — the tensions that tug at a person’s identity, the spitefulness that can lurk beneath seemingly friendly interactions — this bifurcation is, for a while, more successful than you might except.
With plenty of sweet, sugary pop needle drops and Benjamin Kracun’s bubble gum, carefully composed cinematography to go along with it, Cassie spends her nights as a spy of sorts, presenting herself as a near-parody of girlish innocence by day and morphing into a bad-girl avenger at night. Who is the real Cassie, though? Her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) have no idea, and they’ve been worried about her since she dropped out of medical school years ago and essentially put her life on hold. They don’t understand why their brilliant, beautiful daughter still lives at home with them at the age of thirty, works at a coffee shop and appears to have no friends apart from her supportive boss (Laverne Cox). They definitely have no idea what Cassie gets up to in the evenings, their obliviousness underscored by a glibly amusing shot of them watching The Night of the Hunter.
Similarly in the dark about Cassie is Ryan (a perfectly cast Bo Burnham), a tall, lanky charmer who stops by the coffee shop one morning and recognizes Cassie from their med-school days. It’s an amusingly awkward reunion; she barely remembers him, and Ryan, now a pediatric surgeon, definitely stumbles at times with his romantic wordplay. He’s obviously infatuated with Cassie and eventually melts her resistance with puppyish persistence, in scenes that are winning, and tonally at odds, with all their rom-com sweetness. Ryan’s reappearance in Cassie’s life pushes her in two equally fascinating directions. That Ryan is the first man in ages to bypass her natural defenses, to awaken in her feelings of affection and desire rather than contempt, raises the question of whether she might be ready to turn a new page. But their history as former classmates can’t help but draw her back into the past, and specifically to the tragic memory of her best friend, Nina, who is clearly at the heart of Cassie’s grim mission.
What happened to Nina is not hard to figure out, though the steady unwinding of that backstory produces its own interests. Shifting her focus away from random men in clubs, Cassie turns her sharp fury on the many people who failed Nina, women and men alike. Running the gamut from oblivious (Connie Britton) to heartless (Alison Brie) to atonement (Alfred Molina), they all unwittingly illuminate a culture of sexual assault that routinely slut-shames accusers and gives the accused the benefit of the doubt. In these fierce reckonings, Promising Young Woman plays hard with your empathy and your epicaricacy, as if to suggest that the two reactions, far from being opposed, are in fact closely bound. Certainly they are for Cassie, a bundle of contradictions just about held together by Mulligan’s shapeshifting, exactingly controlled performance, without which the story’s dark, unruly pleasures might have veered into incoherence. She pushes this determinedly unstable movie about as far as it could possibly go, even if that ultimately isn’t quite far enough. The grimly multitasking finale of Promising Young Woman feels both audacious and uncertain of itself, too tidy yet bold, as Fennell tries to meld a cackle of delight and blast of fury, with a lingering residue of anguish. It doesn’t all cohere, though there’s an undeniable thrill in seeing it come apart. At times provocative and at times timid, Promising Young Woman is still a defiant and subversive work that’s tonally shaky and may not pack a full punch, yet is rocked by an electric Carey Mulligan.
Promising Young Woman is currently playing in Theaters nationwide