In the grand tradition of movies that are hard to write about without spoiling, this one comes out a frontrunner. Trust me when I say you do yourself a disservice to ask too many questions before seeing the film. Go in as blind as possible, dear reader, and pay close attention to your response.
Promising Young Woman isn’t what you’d expect. Depending on who you are, it’s a taut psychological thriller, a searing satirical analysis of contemporary culture, or a terrifying horror movie rooted in real-life tragedy. But its impact, as with Get Out before it, depends entirely on the viewer and their lived experience. Many will argue Promising Young Woman is anything but a horror movie. I would argue it’s intended to terrify both men and women but for vastly different reasons. The end result is an undeniably provocative film that will intrigue, horrify, or infuriate anyone who watches it. Depending on your vantage point.
The film is written and directed by Emerald Fennell, the show-runner for season 2 of Killing Eve and the actress behind Camilla Parker Bowles in seasons 3 and 4 of The Crown. It’s about a young woman, Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a med school dropout who’s either running from a traumatic past or careening towards self-destruction. We quickly learn that she spends her free time going to crowded bars and pretending to be drunk to pick up guys with a very special endgame in mind; catching them trying to rape her. The goal isn’t to charge them or even to hurt them. It’s simply to watch them squirm once they realize she’s actually fully conscious, and they’ve just been caught red-handed.
She spends her days working in her friend Gail’s (Lavern Cox) coffee shop and stealthily deflecting her parents’ not-so-subtle nudges to move out of their house, where she’s been living since dropping out. But her routine of “work, fish for bastards, and evade parental guilt” is swiftly interrupted by the reappearance of Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old friend from college who confesses a long-standing crush. Everything seems to take a turn for the joyful until the ugly truth about why she left med school comes screaming back to the forefront of her life, and catching random men in the act is no longer enough for her to cope.
There isn’t a weak performance in the bunch, but Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham are true standouts.
Burnham is disarming as Ryan, playing a charming romantic lead with that extra special gift for punchlines that made him famous on YouTube 14 years ago. Eighth Grade solidified Burnham as an up-and-coming filmmaker to watch, but Promising Young Woman could be the film that catapults him into movie stardom.
Mulligan moves Cassie through her emotional fugue state with aplomb. Her performance is one of deft conviction that evokes equal parts fear, admiration, and empathy. In the long list of her already outstanding body of work, this will sit firmly near the top.
Fennell disarms viewers with her use of sugary sweet pop songs, candy-colored nails, floral prints, and brightly lit rooms. Everything looks so happy and normal while, beneath the surface something insidious is festering. Promising Young Woman stares rape culture in the face and dares it to blink first. It presents us with every excuse used to defend the men who rape, by themselves or their friends and family, inundating us with an endless barrage of “what would you have me do”, “we were just kids”, and “I didn’t even do anything.” And all of this, the pitiful excuses and misogynistic deflections highlight what makes Promising Young Woman so truly outstanding — the subjectivity of its terror.
The film is an excellent exercise in the subjectivity of fear and horror. For women, or at least most women, the monster is clear. It’s the men who surround them, acting chivalrous until no one else is around and they’re convincing you you’re safe. Alone. In their apartment. Unable to stand. It’s the men who scream “bitch!” and “prude!” when you turn down their threatening and unwanted advances in public. The men who sob “why do you guys have to ruin everything?!” when you call them on their predatory behaviour.
But what goes hand in hand with this is the lack of culpability. The evasion of responsibility and the lack of closure. The shame that comes with coming forward and being accused of merely looking for a paycheck. Trying to destroy a promising young man’s life. Or, my personal favourite, doing it for the attention. It’s the threats on your life that sometimes accompany telling the truth and the endless assault of being branded a slut who asked for it if you do. What happens if no one believes you? What happens if you’re alone with your abuse and nothing can be done?
Men don’t fear death. In these situations, they don’t fear for their safety, their well-being either physical, mental, or emotional. They don’t even fear for their reputations.
They fear accountability. After all, it’s every guy’s worst nightmare, getting accused like that.
This movie will divide people across many different lines, including the definition of the genre itself. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a horror movie as a “motion picture calculated to cause intense repugnance, fear, or dread.” Merriam Webster defines the emotion of horror as “painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay.” By these (and other similar) definitions, Promising Young Woman will be an entertaining thriller for some, an on-the-nose experiment in SJW propaganda for others, and a terrifying experience for those who’ve lived through assault as either the survivor or the assailant.
But like I said, dear reader, it all depends on your vantage point.
/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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