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Promising Young Woman
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Promising movie, too."
5 stars

The gut tension starts early in Emerald Fennell’s debut feature 'Promising Young Woman.'

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is by herself at night at a bar, seemingly so blitzed she can barely sit up. Some nearby horndogs take notice, and one of them heads over to her. What follows, as the guy compels the scarcely sentient Cassie to go back to his place for a drink, trades one form of stress for another, a more deeply unsettling one. Cassie is nowhere near as drunk or oblivious as she seems, and her M.O. is quickly established: She purposely attracts predatory dudes, then confronts them with their own piggishness. One of the insights that writer-director Fennell has is that all these guys, two minutes after trying to take advantage of an inebriated woman, still want to portray themselves as not that bad. They’re not, like, rapists or anything, they think, not long after they were planning rape.

But this isn’t quite the #MeToo Death Wish some critics have painted it as. It’s a satire — like, dark satire, Juvenalian satire in which hardly anyone comes off well, except maybe Cassie’s gentle dad (Clancy Brown, gainfully cast against his usual type). It satirizes the inverse of its title: the “promising young men” (Brock Turner, say) whose lives stand to be ruined if they are held accountable for their crimes against women. And the women’s lives? Young women, presumably, are not as promising. It’s a bitter, necessary title for a bitter, necessary near-thriller about a rage-filled woman who always seems about to cross over to violence but never does, except the violence she does to men’s egos.

Promising Young Woman is, alas, a bit pulpy; it runs a little too far on coincidence. If Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate of Cassie’s, didn’t pick the coffee bar where she works to grab a cup, there wouldn’t be a first-act spin to kick the material up a notch. Ryan is a doctor, and Cassie was once going to be one, too, but she dropped out of med school to take care of her friend Nina, who was raped at a party. Usually, as in Ms. 45 and other revengesploitation, the annihilating angel is herself a victim, but Fennell works around that trope to haunting effect. Nina is never seen, but looms large over Cassie and over the movie. When we first meet her, Cassie’s vengeful fury is a bit random, scattershot; she only shames those who approach her with foul intent. But Ryan and the world he’s part of give Cassie sharper focus. Ryan seems a decent sort, quietly witty, and we dare to hope that Cassie finds some happiness. But the goblin of coincidence raises its furry head again; there’s a revelation that some will take as a betrayal and others will already have seen coming.

I saw it coming, but Promising Young Woman still left a stinging mark on me as one of the year’s best. I continue to insist that, as more marginalized people step behind the camera and take the reins of story — women, people of color, LGBTQ+, etc. — we will see how their approaches differ, often in wonderful ways, from that of the standard default white-cis-hetero-male director. There is a foglike dread, dread of how bad things can get, that runs through violent female-made films like Jane Campion’s In the Cut and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin — a subtle undertone of the silent agony that male supremacy is built on. And I find it in Promising Young Woman, which isn’t really a “horror film” but is about horror, true horror as it is felt and lived, the horror of being violated and then ignored, having to live on in a world that doesn’t care that you were raped. That, in fact, would rather you just shut up about it or die.

The movie may leave you feeling like an open wound, but I can’t deny it’s also fun a lot of the way. Carey Mulligan gets to play an emotionally stunted, eternally disappointed woman, and she finds notes of wit in Cassie’s pain — she may be in pain, but she also is a pain. That Cassie isn’t a wide-eyed goody-goody allows us to enjoy her manipulations as a sort of theater of rage. This one random guy may have had nothing to do with her friend’s savaging, but he’s still a guy who can be taught some brutal truths. Ryan seems different, but don’t they all? Promising Young Woman sees all men as grinning reptiles pulling at themselves; it sees through Cassie’s eyes without 100% buying into her particular actions, but still doesn’t disagree with her.

And if we didn’t do concern-trolling with Bronson and Eastwood and all the rest about their vigilante actions, we don’t need to start now with Cassie.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33420&reviewer=416
originally posted: 01/16/21 10:44:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2020 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/09/21 Unpromising Older Dude Great. Women can make films as queasy as Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch 2 stars
5/06/21 M Peter felt too identified with the "good guys" in the movie? 4 stars
1/27/21 Amy Peck A little slow in parts. 4 stars
1/21/21 JD Hard Candy 2 3 stars
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  25-Dec-2020 (R)
  DVD: 23-Mar-2021



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