How ironic that Hollywood loves to depict victims of a system that just doesn’t care. We saw it in 2017’s Ingrid Goes West (an indie thriller about a mistreated social media fanatic) and even superhero movies championed society’s patsies with Birds of Prey and Joker. Who doesn’t love antiheroes? It’s a crazy time! Revenge for the poor, the underpaid, the innocent.
Thankfully, Promising Young Woman is a little better than your typical revenge movie. It brandishes a glossy cool akin to feminist action movies like Atomic Blonde, but its commitment to exposing human indecency provides a more satisfying if not fractured portrait of what society creates in the wake of its ignorance.
Carrie Mulligan plays 30 year old Cassie Thomas. Traumatized by the rape and botched trial of her best friend Nina, Cassie fills empty cups of coffee by day and poaches club predators by night. You know, aspiring business-types hunting for tail beneath a gentlemanly façade.
Before the rotten men can swoop the drunken Cassie away, she flips on them. “What are you doing?” she asks soberly, a clever smile on her face from having duped the would-be rapists. Whether she blackmails, reports, or simply scares them isn’t always clear, but her diary suggests many fooled perverts.
The game changes when old med school buddy Ryan Cooper played by Bo Burnham hits it off with Cassie. Ryan picks the old scar of Nina’s rape (the reason Cassie dropped out of school) prompting Cassie to advance her hobbies from nightly sleuthing to full-on revenge. Those involved in Nina’s rape — a classmate, a Dean, a lawyer — present different challenges for Cassie to crack, but her years of repression make her a formidable force.
About the time Cassie starts planning we begin to worry. Will she murder them? How will she dodge the police? Can one woman get them all? Writer-director Emerald Fenell presents all the benchmarks of cheap revenge thrillers and flips them on their heads.
We watch with new eyes as Cassie orchestrates brilliant twists of fate and cruel punishments. She’s only ever as smart as her next move, but what those are we can never fully tell. Only by the end do the hijinks come together.
Not all the pieces to Cassie’s puzzle are vague. She entertains a barren relationship with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) who view her narrowly as their little girl. Their promising young woman. “When will you bring another guy home?” the mother asks. On her birthday they gift her a pink suitcase. The message is crystal. So is the ignorance her failed parents exhibit in offering guidance to her trauma.
Other people listen but don’t know she’s hurting, like her friendly boss at the coffee shop. And when Cassie pegs the witnesses of the rape with hard questions, she’s met with soft shrugs of denial and cowardice.
Cassie is equally funny as she is dark. Some quirky dates with beta-male Ryan are fun to watch, and Fennell makes clear she wants us to think it’s a romantic comedy gone wrong. It isn’t.
The core to Promising Young Woman’s success doesn’t lie in endless genre reversals or bloody mayhem. Mulligan makes clear throughout that here is an empty woman. If not a woman paired with a man as her parents wish, or a woman fit with some politically-aligned career, then a woman free to do whatever the hell she wants.
She wants revenge. And she’s going to goddamned well get it.