Mulligan a standout in potboiling revenge flick ‘Promising Young Woman’

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 1/13/21

A movie thriller for the #MeToo movement writ large, “Promising Young Woman” is like a bit of stale “Hard Candy,” the 2005 film also premised around vengeance against a sexual predator that …

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Mulligan a standout in potboiling revenge flick ‘Promising Young Woman’

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Posted

A movie thriller for the #MeToo movement writ large, “Promising Young Woman” is like a bit of stale “Hard Candy,” the 2005 film also premised around vengeance against a sexual predator that features a standout leading performance. While “Hard Candy” was Elliot Page’s breakthrough role, the already accomplished Carey Mulligan makes “Promising Young Woman” a nearly one-woman show.

Mulligan plays Cassie Thomas, an erstwhile medical school student turned barista. We learn early on that Cassie spends her weekends visiting bars pretending to be drunk and/or stoned to lure in lascivious men who spy an easy mark to take home and force themselves upon. Before matters go too far, Cassie unveils her true condition to the shocked bros.

The origin of Cassie’s nocturnal exploits dates back to med school, when Cassie’s best friend Nina was raped by a fellow student, disbelieved, and shunned before she eventually committed suicide. The trauma of the experience prompted Cassie to drop out of school and move back home with her parents.

For a while, the film teases the degree of retribution Cassie metes out to the would-be assaulters. We soon see that Cassie merely gives them a stern talking to before chronicling their names in a notepad. Indeed, writer-director Emerald Fennell spends much of the film balancing between the titillation of Old Testament-style wrath and the desire to shield Cassie from hypocrisy. Twice Cassie concocts elaborate scenarios whereby someone who enabled Nina’s attack — or their loved one — appears to be sexually assaulted themselves, only for them and the audience to later discover it was all a ruse. Cassie designs some unexplained reprisal against the attorney (Alfred Molina) who once defended Nina’s attacker by savaging her reputation, only for Cassie to relent after she learns that the lawyer has repented and renounced his old career.

One of the biggest victims, however, is Cassie herself, whose relationships with family, friends, and would-be lovers are upended by Cassie’s psychological demons and single-minded atonement. A light seems to pierce her darkness when she meets Ryan (Bo Burnham), a doctor and former classmate whose unquestioned interest and devil-may-care persona are well-suited for the troubled Cassie. However, Ryan’s arrival also triggers the memory of those involved in Nina’s assault and its aftermath, including her rapist. Cassie becomes torn between turning the page on avenging Nina and exacting punishment against those who got away with ruining her life.

What “Hard Candy” lacked in nuance it at least made for in audacity. Unfortunately, “Promising Young Woman” wants to be all things: a revenge flick that does not go too far, a black comedy whose humor doesn’t risk trivializing its subject-matter, and a feminist clarion call that stays sensational without delving into the deep recesses of ingrained, cultural sexism. There is a lot floating around here about female objectification and subjugation as an offshoot of social elitism, but the film does not fully explicate this proposition.

Instead, we are left with a moderately engaging potboiler buttressed by a superlative performance from Mulligan, whose every scene unearths emotional depth not found in the screenplay. This will likely be Mulligan’s second Oscar nomination, for a film whose title most aptly describes its star.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

Grade: C +

Director: Emerald Fennell

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolridge, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton and Alfred Molina

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hr. 53 min.

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