It’s a bitter trope that young, male abusers1 are spared the full brunt of the just system due to their status as a “promising young man”. What then, of the promising young women that are the victims in these tales? Who speaks for them?
When we first see Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), she’s sprawled on a red leather seat, exposed, surrounded by mirrors; seemingly passed out, drunk. The vibe is vaguely reminiscent of the Babylon Club in Scarface, and so too the sense of threat.
Her would-be saviour is Jerry (Adam Brody), seemingly the one decent guy amid a trio of creeps parked at the upmarket dive bar. His companions leer at and mock her, talk about taking advantage. Jerry at least seems uncomfortable. That is at least until he gets her home.
All of Cassie’s “hookups” act the same way – feigned honourable intentions, feigned interest – until her eyes sharpen into deadly focus, suddenly in full control of her faculties. She gives them every opportunity to stop, yet they’re always shocked to discover she’s not drunk; not in a position to be taken advantage of. In fact, they look terrified.
From its opening track, a hilariously ironic use of Charli XCX’s catchy, auto-tuned “Boys”, to its neon, pastel colour scheme, Emerald Fennell’s cinematic debut plays like a gaze-flipped Neon Demon by way of Autumn de Wilde’s Emma.
Cassie, we discover, is keeping a record, a logbook full of names and tally marks. Her parents (Clancy Brown & Jennifer Coolidge), with whom she lives, have no idea of Cassie’s nightlife. All they know is she’s a med-school dropout, pushing thirty, with no boyfriend and a part-time job in a trendy coffee shop.
No one knows quite what to make of Cassie, be it her best friend/employer Gail (Laverne Cox) or her flustered, would-be suitor Ryan (Bo Burnham). After a distinctly unpromising start, their relationship is a bright spot; be it poking fun as his career as a paediatrician (“I’ll stop asking when you stop killing children”) or lip-syncing together to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” in a pharmacy aisle.
Mulligan is magnetic in the role, such as you understand the immediate attraction to her, or believe her claim that she could have all of it – a career, a spouse – in ten minutes, if she do desired it. Promising Young Woman is Drive with Mulligan in the driving seat, rather than the idealised love interest. Instead of cathartic violence, however,2 she finds herself compelled to spend her nights donning personas and staking out dive bars.
A scene in which Cassie carefully follows a makeup tutorial on applying the perfect glossy “blowjob lips”, only to smear them, tactically, as soon as she’s done. This is not for your, for our, gratification. Cassie is a predator of predators. All we know of Cassie’s motivation is a name – Nina.
For all its implied darkness, Promising Young Woman remains a surprisingly easy watch; so long as you are comfortable with ironic comeuppances. Dean Elizabeth Walker (Connie Britton) has long since forgotten those two students. It’s up to Cassie to remind her of the tragedy that took place. Only defence attorney Jordan (Alfred Molina in the second best couch scene of his career) offers much by way of repentance.
The cast is exemplary, including Christopher Mintz-Plasse appears as a genuinely repellant, pseudo-woke fuckboi and Alison Brie as a perky, disgustingly self-satisfied former classmate of Cassie.
Benjamin Kracun’s impeccable cinematography and a superb soundtrack3 help to make the film one of my top (non-)cinema experiences of the year.
Dark but not morbid, arch but not glib, cool but not self-conscious, Promising Young Woman is nouveau exploitation with a delicious sting in its tail.