Revenge is a dish served ice cold in Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut film premiering at Sundance 2020, Promising Young Woman. This film is more than a story of retribution, it’s a social commentary about the web patriarchy, and how it’s inescapable. In Fennell’s world, Men are creeps, and are part of a system that rewards their abhorrent behavior. It’s a bleak, dystopian concept, that holds tremendous promise, but is muddled by odd plot and narrative choices via Fennell’s script. It’s easier to fall in love with the film’s potential than the film itself.
Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a beautiful but miserable young woman who lives at home with her parents. She’s a med school dropout and now working in a coffee shop with her boss Gail (Orange is the New Black‘s Laverne Cox). Every night Cassandra hits a different bar where she pretends to be sloppy drunk, then a supposed “nice guy” ask to take her home (by home, they mean their homes) to make sure she’s “safe.” However, every man she encounters tries to take sexual advantage of her. Just when they think she’s at her most vulnerable, she surprises them with her sober demeanor, and each meet her wrath.
At the beginning, its not clear why she’s targeting these men, but it’s revealed they are connected to an incident that happened to her best friend Nina while they were in Medical school. Cassandra wasn’t there when Nina needed her, so she plans to get even with everyone involved. A monkey wrench is thrown into her plans when she meets Ryan (Eighth Grade writer/director Bo Burnham). She’s been avoiding relationships because she is uncomfortable around men, but will he change her mind and make her drop all she’s worked for, or will she forgo happiness to finish the job?
Promising Young Woman purposely switches tone and genre and, believe it or not, it isn’t annoying. Where it falls short is these tonal shifts aren’t created equal. When there is suspense, drama, or full on horror, the film charges forward, but the rom-com bits are awkward and bring the second act to a screeching halt. Not only do Burnham and Mulligan have no chemistry, it makes no sense in the over all plot that this woman suddenly falls for some random guy she met at a coffee shop after all she’s done.
The film gave me so many questions to answer, it’s difficult to focus on what’s happening in real time. What exactly is Cassandra doing to the men she confronts? Is she just talking to them? Threatening them? Killing them? If she’s just talking, how is she getting away without without retaliation? If she’s killing them, how is she getting away these murders? It’s all so anti-climatic because girl, what man just responds to just talking? What is the purpose?
During the Sundance Q&A at the Promising Young Woman premiere, I asked Fennell why the word RAPE is never used in the film. She said something along the lines of, “I choose not to use the word because men hate using it.’ That’s not an inaccurate statement, however, it follows a pattern of media that is scared to use the R-word when it describes exactly what’s been done. The film is already high camp, high concept, and takes so many risks, why did Fennell draw the line there?!
For all its flaws, I still enjoy the movie. Carey Mulligan plays a villainess with ease. Her sinister smile and cynical portrayal of a woman on the brink of madness makes the audience fall in love with her character. She’s beautiful and owns it, and doesn’t over sell it. You believe her pain and her loss. It’s one of my favorite performances of Sundance Film Festival and maybe of the year.
The score is a brilliant mix of instrumental (including a violin remake of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”) and modern hits that connect with each tonal shift, and never feels erratic or misused. It’s a sound that’s perfect for the sardonic, and grim atmosphere in which Promising Young Woman exist.
Although the writing isn’t always solid, Fennell’s script is clear on where it stands and never waivers from it. Toxic masculinity is dangerous, it’s everywhere, and it’s not just perpetuated by men. The film reminds us that women are also complicit in the enforcement of this toxicity as well. The only way to get these type of people to understand, is to force them into the shoes of victims, thus giving them a taste of their own medicine when talking just isn’t enough. Promising Young Woman could have been more if the director fully committed to being as extreme as she thinks the story is.
This review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Focus Features will release Promising Young Woman on April 17, 2020.
Valerie is a military veteran, movie nerd and freelance writer. As a lover of Japanese animation, comics, and all things film, she is passionate about inclusion across all entertainment mediums. She has reported from the Sundance Film Festival and SXSW Film Festival and from the Cannes Film Festival for AwardsWatch in 2019. You can find Valerie on Twitter at @ValerieComplex.