In her debut feature film, Emerald Fennell takes us on a wild, thrilling ride of trauma fueled revenge. Seven years after losing her best friend, Cassandra (Carrey Mulligan) refuses to move on with her life and instead makes it her mission to scare self-described “nice guys” and would-be rapists straight. In the daring first scene, we see how she does this: by pretending to be extremely intoxicated, alone and vulnerable in a busy bar. Eventually, a seemingly nice guy offers to help her home. Yet, he always takes her back to his place instead and she continues to act nearly-unconscious drunk up until it is extremely apparent that this man is about to rape her. The moment her eyes pop open, giving the audience a knowing look, and soberly asks, “What are you doing?” is a huge turn and a confrontation that fills these horrible men with chilling fear.
Carrey Mulligan plays Cassandra, a woman turning thirty who still lives at home, works at a coffee shop and dropped out of medical school. Her parents seem disappointed, baffled by her lack of motivation and question where she goes so late at night. But to many of the women watching this film, Cassandra is a badass vigilante turning the tables on men and hopefully saving women from future encounters with them. She wears her smudged lipstick like war paint, ready to battle the patriarchy, one misogynistic creep at a time. I loved the moment she just stopped and stared at the catcalling construction workers until they got uncomfortable and left and I actively cheered when she took a golf club to that pickup truck. Sure, Cassandra is probably not a psychologically well person, the trauma she’s endured will do that to a person. She’s the sort of woman many men brush off as a “crazy bitch” and while I wouldn’t want to be her friend, I see her as a hero actively seeking revenge for her best friend. Most women will cheer for her until the very end. And I hope Mulligan wins the Oscar for her performance.
As the story moves, Cassandra shifts her prey to old college acquaintances and the system that protected her friend’s rapist. Like tallies in her little notebook, the movie counts them off in roman numerals: an old classmate who thinks Cassie and Nina “cried wolf”, the lawyer who spent his career defending rapists. One by one, Cassandra finds them and in her own clever and often unorthodox way, makes them see the error of their ways. The scene with the college dean is especially chilling, how Dean Walker (Connie Britton) casually says she hears rape accusations once or twice a week (!!!) and really, what can she do about it? But her tune changes when she is told that her daughter is on campus alone with boys and a bottle of booze. “Look how easy that was. I guess you just had to think about it in the right way. I guess it feels different when it’s someone you love.”
Promising Young Woman is nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and best editing. Carrey Mulligan earned her first nomination for lead actress. Emerald Fennell earned nominations for her original screenplay and her directing. And according to the trivia page on IMDB, Fennell was pregnant during filming, which just makes her more amazing. I’m not sure, but Fennell may be the first person to be nominated for directing a movie while pregnant. And I would love to see her win.
There is so much to unpack in this film. The female pop artists soundtrack is more than just catchy fun, but thought provoking. I never really cared for Brittney Spears’ Toxic, but the instrumental version used as Cassandra infiltrates the bachelor party is perfectly foreboding and I love the version of It’s Raining Men used in the film. Many of the shots are so beautifully and thoughtfully composed, it’s almost a shame there was no cinematography nomination. I especially love the moment in the coffee shop, where Cassandra’s head is perfectly framed against the decorative wall piece. As she looks down, it looks like an old renaissance painting of a saint, or martyr. And there are multiple references to The Night of the Hunter, which I’m still trying to connect. I’d like to see Cassandra teach Robert Mitchum’s character a lesson and I think she’d enjoy that too.
Promising Young Woman is one of the most daring, empowering and thrilling films I’ve seen in years. Cassandra embodies every woman’s rage and pain we hide inside and seeing her release it is so satisfying, even euphoric at times. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a powerfully feminist film in all my life and while I doubt the Academy will find it worth of winning best picture, it is my personal pick. I want to add this to my blu-ray collection, update it as technology changes and make sure to show it to my boys when they’re old enough to date to help reiterate that they must respect and believe women, or there will be serious consequences.
“You know, I got a bonus for every settlement out of court. I got another bonus for every charge dropped. We all did. There was a guy… his only job was to go through all their social media accounts for any compromising information. He contacted old friends, past sexual partners. Oh, you’d be amazed how much easier it is now with the internet to dig up dirt. In the old days we used to go through a girl’s trash. Now? One drunk photo at a party. Oh, you wouldn’t believe how hostile that makes a jury.”