Promising Young Woman, the feature directorial debut of Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, is trying to pull off a tricky balancing act. When it starts, it’s a full-throated, implicitly bloody dive into the rape-revenge thriller — that troubled but fascinating and essential genre in which the long arc toward justice often, probably too often, begins with a firsthand look at the inciting brutality of a woman’s sexual assault. Promising Young Woman’s first intervention: fast-forwarding to the aftermath, to a complex web of revenge that’s already been set in motion. Way, way in motion: pages and pages of names — men’s names — with an accompanying index of tally marks.
The film’s heroine is Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan in a role so naturally attuned to the actor’s skills that Fennell, who also wrote the script, could just have well written it with the actor already in mind. It takes a star like Mulligan — wry, even caustic, but sensitive; unflappable but vulnerable — to make the movie’s conceit work, because it’s a little bit of a doozie. Cassie (short for Cassandra, the truth-teller prophetess of Greek myth who was never believed) has her secrets. And her tricks. Namely: playing overly drunk in bars and singling in on “nice guys,” guys who — once they try to weasel their way into her pants when she’s playing dead drunk, unaware that it’s a fake out — uniformly prove themselves to be not-so-nice.
Which is the point, of course. Promising Young Woman is an unabashed skewering of rape culture. And one of its most immediate, incisive choices is to look beyond the “culture” writ large toward a specific category of predator: the nice guy. The He-Couldn’t-Have guy. The clean-cut guy with a future — the guy given the benefit of the doubt by everyone empowered to decide the fates of both victim and accuser. The promising young man: whose friends are quick to say that it couldn’t have been him, that the victim must be “crying wolf” (as one character here says outright), people who can only feel empowered to speak up in his defense because, well, he hasn’t assaulted them. It’s a movie about men of Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged stripe.
Fennell doesn’t front-load the movie with explicit justifications for this rampage Cassie’s on. But her heroine’s choice of victim speaks volumes. And so do the bits of backstory that eke out, carefully, over the movie’s opening phase. She’s a 30-year-old who, nowadays, lives at home with her parents (played by Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge). In case you’re wondering how they feel about this living arrangement, check this: They buy her a suitcase for her birthday. Point taken.
Why can’t Cassie move on? Well, there’s the fact that, though she’s an unhappy barista nowadays, Cassie was once a promising young woman herself, a star medical student who dropped out all of a sudden, who has a photo on her desk of a friend named Nina, whose fate we will eventually learn. There’s also, you know, that mission of hers, which in Fennell’s hands initially toes the line between mercilessness and tact. We see the blood dripping from Cassie’s arm after one of her encounters; we see as her devious maneuvers surpass mere saps at bars but expand to include a former dean from med school and a former “friend” — both of them women — who get given a taste of their own medicine, in cleverly manipulative ways.
Fennell has manipulations of her own up her sleeve, some of which genuinely work. The line her film toes isn’t just a matter of navigating the traps of the rape revenge genre, but of playing with our expectations. Cassie is a woman who seems unable, or unwilling, to kindle a genuine romance with a man, certainly not with a nice guy. Yet eventually she meets one — a guy from her med school days, played by Bo Burnham, and the movie switches tones a little, not entirely convincingly, though even this eventually feels deliberate.
The cast is expansive and convincing: Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Alfred Molina, and Molly Shannon give the movie a worthy dose of personality, particularly Cox. Through them, and through its star, what the film lands most convincingly — even as its approach sometimes feels too expository for a character who’s too interesting to need much explanation — is a widespread sense of complicity. Innocent bystanders? No such thing. Nor is there much forgiveness, from Cassie, for people who’ve “changed,” who were “just kids” when they did the unthinkable. It is incredibly perceptive about the ways people do the mental math of forgiving themselves for the unforgivable.
If anything, Promising Young Woman proves less effective when its heroine’s psychology is at its most explicit, perhaps because the nature of her designs against other people are already so evocative — already well-enough poised to raise questions — that the ensuing explanations, colliding with more outlandishness and even satire as the movie wears on, don’t always satisfy. But at every turn, every time the movie seems to be losing the thread or striking an ineffective tone, Fennell proves she’s one step ahead of us. Even the climax — which initially feels like it will fall into a genre trap — offers a variation on the usual outcomes. The movie is sturdy and stylish, full of ideas and fun to watch, strange as it may seem to say. If it doesn’t always maintain the sharp effectiveness of its opening, it’s proof of a writer-director willing and able to stay ahead of the curve.