For all intents and purposes, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is a film that I should love. It has first-rate performances, a bubblegum, pop aesthetic (that I LOVED), men being put in their place, and a fucking STELLAR soundtrack. On the surface, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN should be my definitive 2020 film, the one that has surpassed everything else. But it’s not and that makes me sad. It’s not that PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is bad, far from it. The issue is, when it had its moment to shine, to really stick it to the man (pun intended)… it didn’t.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is directed by Emerald Fennell and stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a young woman who has everything ahead of her until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be: she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs of the past.
There’s a lot of genuinely great things about this movie. All the hype you’ve been hearing about Carey Mulligan? Accurate. Colorful aesthetic? Accurate. Bitchin’ soundtrack featuring a new rendition of Britney Spears’ Toxic? Accurate. Surface level, this film sings and explodes in a dazzling array of badassery, at least at first. There’s satisfaction in seeing Cassie put countless men in their place as they try to take advantage of her in different intoxicated states. Unfortunately, these scenarios are all too common. Ask almost any woman you know – they will have a story that’s very similar to Cassie’s experience.
My biggest issue with this film is centered around the message of the story. Now, for spoiler reasons, I’m going to keep things vague, especially in regards to the ending because the third act is really what makes or breaks the film. This film was marketed as a revenge thriller and, though there are elements of that throughout, the stakes that I felt were building up ultimately ended up falling flat. We never truly see retribution for these men’s atrocious actions. They are implied, sure, but never really shown and that’s where I start to struggle. And nothing makes that more noticeable than the ending of the film.
On the contrary though, where we do see Cassie really get her revenge is towards the women who are also complicit in the mysterious act that sets Cassie on her path for revenge. Alison Brie, who plays Cassie’s old college friend, and Connie Britton, who plays the Dean of the aforementioned college, embody the “I’m a neutral party” and “He’s innocent until proven guilty” crowd with perfection. I think there’s a part of us that has come to expect that most men believe they are entitled to a woman through any means, but it’s hard to see other women supporting that mentality. Additionally, the film does a damn good job of showing how so many men pride themselves on the “Nice Guy” persona and how that turns out to be so damaging.
While the film features many good ideas and brings up topics of conversation that need to be had, I’m still lost at the overall message of the film. The threats that Cassie wallops out are satisfying at the moment. Sure, it might initially scare these men, but is true justice actually being served? Most likely, the threats Cassie metes out will fall on deaf ears. And, let’s be honest here, these men will be reinstated and uplifted by their bros to act the same again. Because that’s what we see in real life again and again. Regardless of the circumstances, even when the woman is the perfect victim.
This back and forth with the film’s overall message comes across as muddled, leaving questions behind. Is it a reminder of the stark reality that most women face when speaking out about their attacker? Or are we supposed to believe that justice has been served in this fantasy scenario filled with pop songs and bright colors?
So yes, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is a well-acted film that has touches of revenge weaved in. Visually, it’s one of the most aesthetically pleasing films I’ve seen this year. Even though it’s presented in a colorful Rolodex, I like that it’s tackling some seriously dark topics encircling abuse and trauma. I’m interested to know if there are those out there who felt a hollowness at the ending and if they felt like the ends justified the means. Ultimately, I didn’t think so. It still tips the scales in favor of men getting away with everything (ex. Brock Turner) and, because of that, this film ultimately is not a sweet tale of revenge.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN will arrive in theaters on December 25, 2020.
Disclaimer/Editor’s Note: Nightmarish Conjurings doesn’t endorse seeing movies in theaters at this time due to the pandemic. Please consider VOD and/or Drive-In options and, if you go to the theater, please be safe.