Promising Young Woman | ★★★★¹⁄2
Now playing in theaters
The second a slumped, seemingly blackout drunk Carey Mulligan appears draped across a bench in a thumping, neon-lit club as a gaggle of bros chide, “That is just asking for it,” one thing is clear: This won’t end well.
Just how badly it will end, nothing can prepare you for.
Promising Young Woman, the directorial debut of writer Emerald Fennell (she also co-produced it), delivers a fresh take on the femme fatale for the #MeToo era. It’s a raw, uncompromising thriller with plot twists jagged enough to surprise even the most tenured cinephiles. It’s also a beautifully shot and acted portrait of female rage, pain, and vengeance.
The story follows Cassie Thomas (Mulligan), a thirty-something med school dropout living at home with her parents and working at a coffee shop. A barista by day, Cassie dons heels and slinky dresses at night to hit bars and clubs, pretending to be in a drunken haze as she hunts for men grotesque enough to try and take advantage of intoxicated women.
When a “nice” bloke takes the bait and lures Cassie back to his midcentury manhole to sexually assault her, Cassie’s eyes suddenly open. “What are you doing?” she asks.
Her voice steadies, and with unexpected clarity and authority, she asks: “I said, what are you doing?”
If a man’s worst nightmare in the #MeToo era is being falsely accused of rape, what about being rightfully accused of it in the act? What existential horror dawns upon these self-proclaimed “nice” guys as they realize the unconscious woman they were about to rape is watching them with stone-cold sober eyes? Who do they fear more: Themselves or her?
Cassie, we learn, is a woman on a mission—and revenge is a dish best-served smoking hot. But like any crusader lost in a cause, Cassie’s White Whale pursuit is a tragic triumph.
The film includes uncharacteristic performances from comedian Bo Burnham and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, better known as Superbad’s McLovin. We also get a dose of wholesomeness from Laverne Cox, in a supporting role as Cassie’s boss at the coffee shop; a dash of stupefaction from Alison Brie, as a former college acquaintance; and a spoonful of somber from Alfred Molina, as a lawyer with deep regrets.
But all of these performances revolve around the nuclear riptide of Mulligan’s calculatedly unhinged performance. It’s definitely a career-best for Mulligan, previously known as the coy ingenue in An Education and the aloof Daisy in Baz Luhrmann’s ambitiously stiff The Great Gatsby.
This time, Mulligan harnesses the unbridled power of a woman fighting not just against a man, or men, but the system itself. And by the time the endgame reveals itself, you’ll be picking your jaw off the floor.
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