Revenge thriller, rated R, 113 minutes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, 4 chiles
In writer-director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature, Promising Young Woman, a desperate man pleads with the movie’s protagonist, Cassandra (Carrie Mulligan). He insists that being accused of rape is every man’s worst nightmare.
“Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” she asks rhetorically. Both characters know why they’re there. Cassandra is righting old wrongs, and this man’s past has come back to make sure he’s held accountable. It’s a viscerally uncomfortable episode in a movie full of equally searing moments in which a woman in a state of prolonged grief shows self-proclaimed “nice guys” who they really are.
In one half of the movie’s plot, Cassandra spends her weekends meeting men at clubs and pretending to be completely inebriated until the men get their hands inside her clothes. It’s a dangerous hobby, even addiction, that she uses to prove something to herself, again and again. The other storyline is about how rape touches people well outside of the perpetrator-victim microcosm. Cassandra’s best friend was raped when they were in college, and this altered the course of both their lives. Loyalty is one of the movie’s major themes, but Cassandra’s devotion to her friend has gone awry. She cannot get over what happened, so she has nothing to lose by repeatedly putting herself at risk for violence.
Mulligan is excellent in the lead role, and casting is key throughout the movie. Nearly all of the roles are filled by television actors known for playing kind, honorable people, including Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights), Max Greenfield (The New Girl), and Adam Brody (The O.C.). It deliberately shocks the audience to have to accept them as less than upstanding. Visually, the movie looks like a fairytale in which the princess suffers from a failure to launch, with lots of its settings awash in faded pink and old lace. We learn that Cassandra had potential, once upon a time. She works in a café and funnels all her talent into her performances. She has become a master of her craft. By day, Cassandra wears floral-print dresses and other little-girl-like ensembles, her frosted hair in a braid down her back. At night, dressed in various costumes to snare rapists, she’s nearly a parody of a beautiful woman past her prime.
Mulligan plays Cassandra as slightly unstable yet steely willed, her personality flitting between potentially sociopathic and entirely sympathetic, while a bubble-gum pop soundtrack plays in the background. Promising Young Woman exposes harsh truths about humanity that will threaten approximately half the viewing audience and offer a sort of catharsis to the other half. — Jennifer Levin