Promising Young Woman (2020)

“You know, they put themselves in danger… girls like that.”

Somewhat flawed in its messaging yet more tantalizing than just about any film to be born from the laborious 2020, Promising Young Woman dresses its femme fatale inspiration in colorful neon hues and memorable music cues, making for a film that’s inherently foggy and knowingly divisive. This is the kind of picture that makes you feel strongly, filling you with disgust or delight but never indifference. It’s all about how you read the film, how it hits you personally, and I really don’t think there’s a wrong or right side in this rare circumstance. I found it powerful, demoralizing, and devastatingly relevant.

With maybe the most memorable opening sequence in any feature of the past year, Promising Young Woman uses its gaze to zoom in on and effectively exploit the many male bodies awkwardly dancing to the tune of Charli XCX’s track “Boys“. It’s a work night and the dance floor is full of what looks like recently graduated frat bros, all decked out in their work attire, probably pretty drunk and in most cases a little coked out too. Anyone who’s ever been to a few bars has likely seen this very scene before. In the not-too-distant corner is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), sprawled out against the tufted booth, disheveled and a sloppy mess. Again, most have seen this, and I’m guessing quite a few have firsthand experience. But it’s not what it looks like, and hardly ever is the movie as a whole.

So many modern movies feel forced to play poker with their entire hand lying face up on the table. To show us the who/what of the story so that we might fully understand the when/where and perhaps more importantly the why. But above all else, Promising Young Woman’s chief concern is with the how of its telling. There’s room for argument about purpose of the picture’s why; that its depiction of trauma lacks total closure or real personal depth and sports an ending that borders on being offensively cutesy given the setting, and should have taken precedence over the stylistic how that writer/director Emerald Fennell’s film evokes in nearly ever waking minute. There’s spectacle to be found in the vague something here, but I think it might have resonated more had it been some thing. There’s a drastic difference between the two.

There’s so much personality on display in Fennell’s titillating debut feature that it oddly enough often gets in its own way. Never is the oddity of love and longing in the face of perpetual despair more apparent than when Cassie reluctantly reunites with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former med school friend who’s now a pediatrician while Cassie continues to serve coffee, even spitting in his drink when jokingly dared. It’s a bright spot and a beacon of hope, and it makes so much sense that this obviously fledgling rom-com montage is fueled by the infamous lyrics of “Stars Are Blind” by Paris Hilton. It’s a fun, dramatic, fleeting sequence that practically serves as a palette cleansing aperitif to the bitter end. Cassie seems to be living her life for once, but the past gets stirred up once more, and it’s clear she knows what she can and must do. Heartache and anguish have a hold on her. She’s consumed by vengeance.

For better and for worse, something tells me Promising Young Woman will be the victim of far too many think piece personal essays, all while deservedly earning its place in the ranks of contemporary cult classics. It’ll be shamed or shunned. This movie is cautious and cantankerous, a little careless and at times expertly calculated. It gives agency and a new license to a character who’s never really herself, and who builds a fascinating revenge realm where she’s always in control or at least prepared for the worst. It’s temperamental in that way. I wish Fennell’s film had more character development and more dramatic depth, but there’s no denying that the picture exercises its plot with a surgical sense of precision, and features carefully orchestrated words and sentencing which sow the seeds of vengeance. Too many men get away with murder, and the point behind Promising Young Woman seems to be that revenge isn’t just a dish best served cold, but one gently warmed and abruptly broken over the abuser’s head. I’ve watched it three times now and haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. It’s appropriate that such a demonstrative film should linger with the pain and passion of a blistering brand, and that it should scar you whether you like it or not. It’s piercing, powerful, penetrating stuff.

“This is fate.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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