‘Promising Young Woman’ is a A Riveting Revenge Thriller

by Hassan Ilahi

Sexual assault is a sensitive subject that is rarely depicted in films. Hollywood has long shied away from the experiences of sexual abuse survivors. When telling the stories of rape victims, filmmakers tend to fall prey to the male gaze. Through this flawed perspective, women are viewed solely as sexual objects for male pleasure rather than multi-layered humans. Furthermore, Hollywood’s attitude towards this subject has been negatively affected by the #MeToo Movement. Due to shocking abuse allegations targeted against celebrities (ex. Harvey Weinstein), filmmakers have long avoided addressing this issue. Consequently, sexual abuse stories are rarely told on the big-screen.

In an industry often criticized for objectifying women, Emerald Fennell’s latest film Promising Young Woman is a promising achievement. A bold, darkly comic and unpredictable revenge thriller, it offers a fresh feminist view on sexual harassment. With her directorial debut, Emerald Fennell uses the female gaze to create a scathing indictment of rape culture. Packed with stylish production values, innovative storytelling and powerful performances, it is one of the best movies of the year. Although Promising Young Woman is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It builds to an implausible ending that strains credulity. Nonetheless, it offers taut entertainment that will satisfy fans of revenge thrillers.

Promising Young Woman tells the story of a traumatized heroine that avenges the assault of her friend. Carey Mulligan stars in the lead role as Cassie Thomas, a young woman that is haunted by the rape of her best friend Nina. Cassie lives a secret double life as a vigilante and seeks vengeance against the sexual predators that assaulted her friend. However, Cassie’s wicked schemes are disrupted when she falls for former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham). As Cassie’s duplicitous double life is exposed, her affair threatens to fall apart.

Debutante director Emerald Fennell is a newcomer to themes of sexual assault. Fennell is an illustrious actress that is most famous for her roles in English television shows (ex. 2016’s “The Crown”). Promising Young Woman, however, marks her first directorial feature and foray into the lives of women that experience sexual assault. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to humanize the experiences of sexually harassed women from a feminist perspective, but she pulls it off seamlessly. Using stunning cinematography, Fennell draws viewers into the world of a traumatized woman that seeks retribution for her friend’s death. Fennell’s decision to shoot the movie using a bright color palette is risky, but it works extremely well. Working alongside cinematographer Benjamin Kračun, Fennell meticulously employs colors to draw a contrast between Cassie’s trauma and joyous appearance. Fennell displays real promise behind the camera, and her directorial debut is worth watching for this reason alone.

If stories of sexually harassed heroines do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see Promising Young Woman. For a first-time filmmaker, Fennell showcases extraordinary control of craftsmanship over the costume design, production sets and musical score. Fennell proves to be an expert at designing costumes in her feature debut. Assisted by costume-designer Nancy Steiner, Fennell effectively employs exquisite costumes to convey character development. For instance, Cassie’s various dresses demonstrate her transformation throughout the movie from a victim of sexual harassment into an inspirational feminist heroine. Through these elaborately crafted costumes, Fennell creates an empowering female character whom viewers can easily empathize with. Furthermore, the musical score is also worth praising. Anthony Willis’ score is highly memorable. It gives the movie a tense and nerve-wracking atmosphere. Through extraordinary production values, Fennell keeps viewers engrossed in the world of a femme fatale that exacts vengeance upon predatory men that cross her path.

Another exceptional aspect of Promising Young Woman is the screenplay. Fennell’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is her ability to subvert the expectations of viewers by mixing genres. In Hollywood, most movies follow a formulaic genre that audiences are familiar with. This often leaves no room for surprises and detracts from the quality of the movie-going experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with Promising Young Woman. Blending together different genres- such as romantic comedy, thriller and horror- Fennell crafts a film that is constantly surprising. Genre-mixing is a tricky technique to employ successfully in movies about serious subjects. It is not easy to infuse humor into a subject as somber as sexual harassment. When used inappropriately, comedy can often become offensive and hinder the viewer’s engagement. However, it works tremendously in this movie. Fennell accomplishes a tricky tonal feat, creating a film that strikes the perfect balance between serious and hilarious moments. Using an unconventional screenplay, Fennell keeps viewers absorbed in a world of female rage.

It is hard to not praise the powerful performances from the cast. The film is an award-worthy showcase for its leading lady.

Carey Mulligan delivers a career-defining performance as Cassie Thomas. Mulligan is best known for playing smitten heroines in old-fashioned period dramas (ex. 2009’s “An Education”). With Promising Young Woman, however, she takes on her most complex role to date. It is not easy to get into the mindset of an emotionally disturbed woman that seeks retribution for her friend’s rape. It’s a challenging role that requires the actress to toe a fine line between being sympathetic and heinous. However, Mulligan pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, she conveys the anger, deceitfulness and seductive nature of a female vigilante that chastises sexual predators. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance from the most seasoned actress working today.

The supporting cast is stellar and also worthy of recognition. Bo Burnham is brilliant and exudes simmering sexual tension as Cassie’s unsuspecting boyfriend Ryan. Alfred Molina is amazing and brings a shred of humanity to the movie as a sympathetic victim of Cassie’s revenge. And finally, it is hard to not mention Christopher Mintz-Plasse. As a repulsive sexual predator, he brings hilarious comical relief to the movie.

Despite its phenomenal performances, however, it’s unfortunate that Promising Young Woman doesn’t fully live up to its promising potential. If there’s a minor downside to the movie, it suffers from a misjudged conclusion. Fennell’s decision to conclude the movie with the death of a central character is courageous and unexpected, but it doesn’t entirely work. It’s a far-fetched ending that overwhelms viewers with its sexist men-are-monsters message. Instead of bringing the story to a satisfying closure, it simply leaves viewers in a state of shock. Furthermore, it’s worth mentioning that the movie may not please everyone. The film covers provocative topics such as misogyny, rape and suicide that will disturb certain viewers. Due to its harrowing subject, Promising Young Woman is one of those movies that will not appeal towards commercial audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of revenge thrillers will definitely enjoy Promising Young Woman and so will moviegoers seeking empowering entertainment. An extraordinary piece of feminist filmmaking, it sheds light on timely issues facing women in the #MeToo Era. Hopefully, its promising young heroine will teach men a cautionary lesson to think twice before harassing vulnerable women in the world ever again.

Hassan’s Grade:  A-

This is our second review of Promising Young Woman. You can also read Gordon’s review here!