It’s only right that a revenge story with a savage punch line should also have a savage sense of humor. And so it is with PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a tale of rage against the patriarchy in which the testosterone-heavy are not the only problem, and one woman’s refusal to let a crime go unacknowledged makes her crazy. Or is it society that is unhinged, and she’s the only one seeing things clearly? Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, this is a film designed to confront as well as entertain, as well as to ask some difficult questions about guilt, responsibility, and that ci-mentioned revenge.
We begin with the aptly named Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), lolling drunkenly on a red leather banquette at a club. She’s barely conscious when she’s approached by Jerry (Adam Brody), who has just been swapping tales with his (male) co-workers about how tough it is to work with women now that it’s no longer cool to take them to strip clubs for business meetings. Jerry chivalrously gets her into a rideshare, and then, less chivalrously changes their destination to his place. There, once Cassandra has established that Jerry is alone and that he is actually going to have his way with her incoherent self, suddenly reveals herself as stone cold sober, and Jerry realizes he’s made the mistake of a lifetime. What exactly happens to Jerry is left unclear, though we see Cassandra adding a mark to her notebook that keeps a tally on her missions of this ilk. As she explains to a subsequent guy (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), she does this sort of thing about once a week, and she’s never been disappointed (a relative term here) yet. She then walks this guy why he’s not the good guy he thinks he is before we cut to another mark in Cassandra’s notebook.
If the plot remained in orbit around a black comedy concerning the adventures of a serial avenger, we would have an enjoyable flick. Ferrell, however, is interested in more than mere frippery about a serious topic. When we discover the Cassandra’s reasons that have brought her to this extreme, the film becomes infinitely more interesting. The taciturn and mordantly funny Cassandra is a medical school dropout, who left her dream of becoming a doctor behind after something bad happened during her first year there. In conversations with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), with whom the 30-year-old lives in plastic-covered suburban splendor, there are allusions, but nothing specific beyond a telling birthday present that exemplifies their complete misunderstanding of what their daughter is going through.
Into Cassandra’s life enters Ryan (Bo Burnham). Or rather, re-enters when the boyish pediatric surgeon walks into the coffee shop where she is the world’s worst employee, much to the amusement of owner and best friend Gail (Laverne Cox). Ryan remembers her from med school together, and he hasn’t stopped thinking about her. A distinctly off-putting rejection doesn’t phase him, and soon, despite herself, Cassandra finds herself falling for Ryan, who can match her bon mot for bon mot, and who is willing to go slow. As in not kissing or any other physical contact.
The downside is hearing what everyone else from their class is up to, which gives Cassandra more focus in her secret quest, even as it reveals more and more of exactly what that incident was, and how women were just as complicit in the aftermath. Even the least complicit, and most well-meaning in the person of the mother of a childhood friend, tells Cassandra to leave the past in the past.
Along the way, women (Connie Britton and Alison Brie) will discover what it’s like to be dismissed when their words come back to haunt them, and the perpetrator will get a reckoning of truly biblical proportions. Old Testament. The tone will change, too, from wryly mischievous to starkly suspenseful. Fennell never quite lets on just how far Cassandra is willing to go until the very end, by which time the viewer is seriously torn between wanting her to succeed in seeing justice done and wanting her to get some relief from the pain she has been carrying around all these years. Relief that doesn’t involve a possible felony. In Mulligan, the filmmaker has found the perfect player who can be innocent, profane, vulnerable, and scathing. There are many layers at work, and Mulligan fills out each one, creating a character who is so lost in her own psychological games that she has lost herself.
When her father, thinking that Cassandra is starting to recover when she brings Ryan home after seeming to live as a recluse, says that he’s missed her old self, it’s heartbreaking for what it says about his sorrow at not being able to help his only child, not even understanding why she still needed help after so many years. It’s a haunting scene for what it has to say about societal expectations as a whole, where the greatest damage can be inflicted by those who mean well.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is impudently subversive. There are definite villains to be found, though most of them don’t think of themselves that way, and the one exception (Alfred Molina) becomes counterintuitively tragic in a neat piece of irony. This is a film to make you laugh, to make you gasp, and to make you want to storm a rampart.