‘Promising Young Woman’: Carey Mulligan Hunts Predators With Satirical Brilliance

Keenly written, directed and performed by two immensely talented actors, “Promising Young Woman” does not limit vision and intelligence. It’s a wicked satire and a bloody romp. Director Emerald Fennell and star Carey Mulligan use the violence and humor to make angry, sobering observations. Misogynists bemoan #MeToo and the rising tide of stronger feminist currents, but here is a thriller that entertains without letting you get too comfortable due to its raw honesty. That said, “Promising Young Woman” is currently releasing only in theaters and readers are not encouraged to risk their health and safety and the health and safety of others to see it quite yet. But, while there is no date announced yet, you shouldn’t have to wait long for the film to come to VOD.

The film opens in a scene all too familiar in any nightclub anywhere. A leering pack of guys take notice of a very drunk woman in a suit, Cassandra (Mulligan). Of course there’s a nice guy in the group who offers to take her home. You know, he just wants her to be safe. Inevitably he tries to take advantage of her and that’s when she snaps to attention. It was all a ruse to entrap the creep. And so Cassandra marks off another check in her long list of paybacks against the kind of men who prowl for their next conquest. By day she’s a 30-year-old working at a coffee shop and living with her parents, Susan (Jennifer Coolidge) and Stanley (Clancy Brown). It’s a rather tense home since Cassandra dropped out of medical school a few years ago and seems content with living life out at the coffee shop. The truth is she remains haunted by an incident in college when her friend Nina suffered a brutal sexual assault and nobody was ever brought to justice for it. Just when a genuinely nice guy appears in her life, Ryan (Bo Burnham), new opportunities arise for Cassandra to finally bring down the hammer on the predators who derailed her life.

Fennell and Mulligan collaborate on “Promising Young Woman” like two filmmakers high on the sheer adrenaline of making a movie. Fennell, who recently appeared as Camilla Parker Bowles in “The Crown,” was also the showrunner behind the second season of “Killing Eve,” here proves she has the makings of a major film director. First in terms of technique it’s an exhilarating pop cinema experience. Fennell and cinematographer Benjamin Kracun film in neon glows and bright palettes that are both lush but ominous. It has the look of a modern America saturated in feel-good entertainment and gloss, but beneath the surface lie predators. This makes “Promising Young Woman” a striking work of popcorn subversion. Ryan and Cassandra walk down a store singing Paris Hilton as if they were in a rom-com, but it’s not all paradise and later on the soundtrack an orchestral version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” captures the dangerous nature of Cassandra’s world.

By making a satire, Fennell delivers biting commentary by slyly entertaining the audience. When Cassandra goes out at night to hunt for predators at bars and nightclubs, pretending to be that girl who drank too much and looks “easy,” the goofballs she encounters are tragically comic, until their real intentions are obvious. There’s the deceptively insecure “nerd” who reads David Foster Wallace or the slick guy in leather who wants to be helpful at a club. When Cassandra turns out not to be easy prey their dialogue erupts in torrents of slut-shaming. These moments generate unnerving tension. Most female-driven revenge movies feature over the top villains, like the mobsters Jennifer Garner obliterates in “Peppermint.” Fennell’s targets are the kind of would-be rapists women have to deal with anywhere, from the workplace to sports bars. Fennell pulls no punches.

The storyline involving Cassandra’s quest to avenge her friend Nina then reveals the film’s even deeper purposes. Fennell’s screenplay at heart is about the horror of victimhood. Cassandra begins her nighttime activities because of the trauma she experienced watching her friend suffer an assault nobody answered for. When she coerces the dean of her former college with a threat regarding her daughter, it’s not cheap thrills, but a cinema embodiment of what some people in power deserve but never receive. Alfred Molina plays a lawyer who is brought to sincere tears, in a rather powerful scene, for helping Nina’s assailants go free.  Such moments pose very real moral questions even as the suspense never dissipates. Fennell brilliantly balances her sense of thriller with sharp drama. As social commentary it is blistering. When Cassandra goes to a bachelor party disguised as a nurse we get the perfect depiction of the privileged male culture that churns out the Brett Kavanaughs of the world. 

Carey Mulligan, who has played so many sweet and innocent faces damaged by an uncaring world, delivers a performance that outdoes every shallow revenge character that came before her. She’s not some superhero, but a damaged person who refuses to just take it. It is a fantasy and we have yet to read news reports of someone engaging in this kind of project, but she makes us wonder if someone should. She also has fun with the role, switching from the vulnerable coffee shop worker who is hesitant to open up, to deceptive prey who shows no mercy when a creep begs for clemency. After this movie Mulligan deserves roles with even more edge. Cassandra proves she can be threatening in the same convincing way she usually plays warm.

The ending of “Promising Young Woman” will certainly generate much discussion. Fennell conjures something both challenging and satisfying to close. She refuses to go the easy route and actually gets even darker. That’s what makes this movie so good. It’s a director saying you can have your popcorn suspense, but not without purpose. The craft is superb because it will also force many in the audience to look at themselves. We can cheer Cassandra on in how she meets out justice on the predators of the world, but it asks us to ponder just how often we encounter them and say or do nothing.

Promising Young Woman” releases Dec. 25 in select cities.