It’s 2020. You and just about everyone you know has had a terrible year and anybody who’s paying attention is probably pretty angry about something. In a year that lacked conventional blockbusters (fuck the Avengers) and is just pretty shitty in general, now is the perfect time for a smaller, yet extremely powerful movie to come along; a movie with a clear and strong message that should be seen by literally everyone. We had to wait until just about the end of the year, but that movie has arrived. Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is a shocking and brutal take on revenge filled with painful honesty. It’s also probably the most entertaining movie of the year.
Before I get into the details of what makes this movie so great, I feel the need to say that this film deals with issues of sexual assault and other problematic behavior that could be disturbing for some viewers.
Promising Young Woman is a story about a woman named Cassie (Carey Mulligan),
and how her life has been affected by sexual assault. Now, you may be thinking, this sounds like a pretty intense drama, and at times it is, but remember, this is a story about revenge. Constantly shifting between black comedy, rom-com and thriller, this movie wastes absolutely no time and is impossible to look away from.
Based on the premise of the film, it may be difficult to see how comedy could be added to a story that surrounds so many dark themes. It’s quite the balancing act, and it’s pulled off to perfection. Two completely conflicting tones end up perfectly complementing one another. To balance one tonal extreme, you need the other, and when they shift, that’s when this movie finds its wings. This is no easy feat, and there’s some key contributors that made this possible.
A lot of the credit belongs to first time filmmaker Emerald Fennell, whose stylistic imprint is clearly all over this movie. Every detail of this film feels so unified, from the amazing production design down to the iconic soundtrack. Fennell’s directorial style is representative of her incredible skill behind the camera, but her writing is what really shines. The script is scathing and ruthless and I adored every bit of it. This film manages to touch on so many important aspects surrounding sexual assault, and serves to show just how frustrating and pathetic some people really are; not just those who commit these acts, but also those that stand by and allow them to happen. More observant viewers will notice some of the more subtle red flags, such as the nuanced aspects of predatory behavior, but there are certainly enough overt moments to help everyone get the picture. Beyond these actions, which are terrible, we also hear just about every rape apologist line in the book; from the victim blaming bystanders to the former frat stars pleading “We were just kids”. This film is filled with disgraceful people and is infuriating at parts, but I’ll remind you once more, this is a film about revenge. That’s where the fun comes in. The acts depicted and discussed in this film are absolutely heinous, but seeing these people beg for mercy as their worlds begin to crumble around them is truly a thing of beauty. Some may argue that revenge is never justifiable, but this is one of the clearest cases of “They had it coming”, and there is absolutely no sympathy to be felt. What Fennell has crafted here should resonate with just about everyone and the payoff is something truly special.
Now let’s talk about Carey Mulligan, the other key piece in this movie. Maybe not a household name, but she soon will be. Her performance here is utterly transformative and it’s her devotion to this role that launches this movie into the stratosphere. It’s easily one of the best on-screen characters of the year, and a performance I will not soon forget. Knowing the academy, she won’t be recognized for this role, but dammit she should be. Mulligan thrives in both the emotional moments, as well as the comedic ones. A major part of the film’s successful tonal balance can be attributed to her versatility as an actress. With an amazing supporting cast behind her, Mulligan works wonders. Other standouts are Laverne Cox, who is absolutely hilarious, and Bo Burnham who brings his usual brand of cringe comedy. With a killer script, the performances are near perfect across the board. In addition to the excellent chemistry of the cast, this film also has an immensely cohesive feel to it. Great set pieces, memorable costumes, and a soundtrack filled with pop music all add to the bigger picture. This movie plays like a modern-day fairytale, beaming with color and character, while a sinister story lies beneath the surface.
This film is perfect for 2020 because it all just feels like the biggest “fuck you”, but ultimately, it’s a timeless reminder of how horrible some people can be, and how satisfying and entertaining it is to watch them get what’s coming, even if it is just a movie. This film is sure to be a cult classic, but it deserves to be loved by the masses. Emerald Fennell’s voice is one of the loudest I’ve heard in awhile, and it’s absolutely one I will be looking for going forward.
Promising Young Woman is set to release in theaters on December 25th and if you’re Jewish like me, go ahead and watch this with your family on Christmas day! If you, like me don’t live in an area where theaters are open, expect this to arrive on Video-On-Demand at some point early next year.