‘Promising Young Woman’ serves up bitter revenge with lackluster storytelling

Photo from the film, "Promising Young Woman"
Focus Features/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

With promises of revenge and the instrumental of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” in the background of its trailer, Promising Young Woman seemed destined for success. The film boasts a star-studded cast and the prospect of making a scorching statement. In a world where rape victims are silenced and forgotten, the film asks: How can women possibly find justice? It attempts to answer the question with biting agency, but ultimately falls flat with a lackluster narrative it clumsily builds. 

The film follows Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a medical school dropout still reeling after her childhood best friend, Nina, was raped at a party. Her rapist is about to get married to a model, while Nina’s name is largely forgotten among classmates and the school administrators.

Since then, Cassie has found time outside of her cafe day job to hunt down Earth’s most dangerous creatures — white men claiming to be just “nice guys.” It’s Cassie’s tradition: stumble into a bar, look helpless, get the attention of a “nice guy” looking only to help, of course. In a sea of a seedy club’s crotch thrusts and sweaty upper lips, nice guys coming to “help” the “drunk” Cassie get home appear to be knights in button-ups and ties. 

For women, it’s playing out like a nightmare. For men, it’s a meet-cute gone right. But while they’re in the process of undressing her, Cassie shakes off her inebriated state. “What are you doing?” she asks, crystal clear and accompanied by a cunning smile. 

Mulligan’s performance is haunting, and she truly carries the weight of the film on her cardigan-covered shoulders. Her well-timed line delivery goes straight for the jugular each time. Cassie’s the type to make a man fall in love with her after she spits in his coffee, and Mulligan gives her the edge to make her purpose believable. 

No opportunity is wasted on Mulligan, who expertly embodies Cassie’s complex precision and occasional instability. She’s a master at letting pain and anger play out in full form before quickly diluting it to Cassie’s well-practiced smugness. While other characters seem like caricatures of real personalities, Mulligan makes sure Cassie is undeniably human, and at the same time, always a step ahead of ever±yone else. 

The film is an aesthetic feast. Writer, director and producer Emerald Fennell purposely lulls viewers into a false sense of security in her pastel pink world with a catchy pop soundtrack but then quickly yanks us back to reality. 

Perhaps because the trailer and the film’s subsequent publicity campaign proposes it to viewers as a revenge story, there was an expectation that Cassie’s anger would manifest into something more furious and more palpable. Both in this neon, bubblegum pink world Fennell has crafted, and in the real world which women must endure, violence is seen and regarded as misplaced. 

It’s a sugar-coated message Fennell makes purposefully hard to swallow. Whatever rage Cassie feels, she refuses to let it metastasize. She’s acutely aware that she must follow the rules society set. She watches “blowjob lips” makeup tutorials because she knows what men want. She puts on a show of being defenseless because it’s how women have long been told to act before flipping the switch on the power dynamic. Her anger only ever appears when she clubs a car or kicks down a trash can. It’s never aimed at other people who deserve it. 

Instead, she inflicts violence by simulating chaos. She leads a former classmate (Alison Brie), who slut-shamed Nina in the past, to believe she was assaulted after their wine-heavy brunch. 

If not for the strength of Mulligan’s performance, Cassie’s quiet version of vengeance would’ve seemed tepid rather than calculated as Fennell intended. 

Where revolution was promised, we’re only able to get half-hearted revelations. It aims to be an acerbic take on rape culture’s treatment while dancing around the conversation. There’s potential to develop something more in-depth and a much more tangible plot. The film just never realizes it.

Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected].