Promising Young Woman: Uneven feminist thriller is still a decent effort

The #MeToo movement has utterly revolutionised sexual politics on the global stage in the past few years. After decade upon decade of monsters such as Jimmy Savile and Harvey Weinstein subjecting women (and in Savile’s case, young children) to disgusting sexual abuse and degradation, enough victims began having the courage to look powerful and indifferent institutions and individuals in the face and spill the ugly truth about their horrific, life-changing ordeals. One by one, cruel and misogynistic men of prominence are being investigated, charged and convicted for their unforgivable actions, and it has encouraged a reinforcement of feminist thinking for women of all ages so they may be left under no illusion that specific attitudes and behaviours in our society are inexcusable. It naturally follows that an effect has also been had on the arts, louder voices surfacing in protest against troubling, lowest-common-denominator depictions of women in motion pictures, songs, video games, even literature. The time has come to stop sweeping things under the carpet, whatever the medium.

Promising Young Woman, the directorial debut of British author and screenwriter Emerald Fennell, is predicated on this establishment-smashing phenomenon. Featuring a memorable lead performance from Carey Mulligan and walking a comedy-thriller tightrope, it is sure to generate some interesting and necessary conversation, even if a good deal of the screenplay has an afterthought vibe to it.

Cassandra ”Cassie” Thomas (Mulligan) is a thirty-year-old woman living at home with her parents and working in a local coffee shop. Despite being poised for success in her previous career as a medical school student, Cassie dropped out due to deeply disturbing and tragic events that befell her best friend Nina. I won’t spoil anything major, but it’s relevant to the aforementioned social movement. As the film opens, we become privy to Cassie’s moonlighting as something of a feminist vigilante, feigning extreme inebriation in bars and nightclubs so that some opportunistic pervert will take her home and attempt to take advantage of her, only for her to reveal the ruse, menacingly confront them and write their name down in her notebook.

One day at work, Cassie’s old med-school classmate Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) wanders in and recognises her, making awkward small talk around his coffee order and eventually requesting a date. Though Cassie is reluctant to get truly close to anybody, her curiosity gets the better of her and she begins to date him. During one of their evenings together, Ryan starts to discuss some of their school alumni and mentions several names who were instrumental in the evil things that happened to Nina. Quietly enraged by the fact that justice was never served, Cassie cunningly formulates an ingenious and unpredictable scheme of vengeance that will turn many worlds upside down, all the while being gently ushered by those closest to her to move on with her life and stop obsessing over past tragedies that she can’t unwind.

First and foremost, Mulligan’s performance is an indubitable attention-commander. Cassie is scary (and righteously so), but she also carries deep wounds from the trauma of seeing her best friend’s life snatched away from her, resolving to be forevermore pro-active in punishing chauvinistic predators who treat women like playthings. There is a deep, deft satisfaction to scenes where she psychologically toys with wrongdoers that make her seem like an apex avenging angel, an exterior that is undercut by deeply painful sequences of Cassie’s private anguish and people pleading with her to stop tormenting herself. Mulligan carries the role with an effective balance of caustic wit and cynicism, sinister anger and palpable hurt that makes it difficult to avert your eyes.

As strong as this focal turn is, it is regrettably mired in a script that has some real trouble finding its feet in places. A good chunk of the dialogue is clunky and on-the-nose, particularly in the opening sequence where a group of yuppie sleazebags are discussing the pitiful sight of a ”wasted” Cassie in a nightclub. Perhaps some element of satire is going embarrassingly over my head, but it had an obviousness of exposition that couldn’t have hand-held the audience any more than having one of them adorned in an ”I Am A Sexual Predator :)” t-shirt.

Outside of Mulligan, much of the characterisation is thin or off-kilter, Cassie’s dalliance with Ryan feeling like something better suited to a Judd Apatow comedy than this blackly humorous slice of social commentary. Despite this, it’s hard to not strongly root for her every step of the way. Moments that demonstrate her masterful proclivity for dissuading potential rapists are very well executed and never sink into repetition, Christopher Mintz-Plasse showing up as a particularly pathetic scumbag in a scene that is hilarious and appropriately unnerving when Cassie drops the act. The entire revenge strand is effective in teasing at a side of Cassie’s personality that is more malevolent than any viewer could have predicted, but that’s all I’ll tell you. She’s building up to one hell of a grand finale, and it’s mischievously fun and shocking watching her get there.

As much as I feel that its shortcomings prevent it from greatness, Promising Young Woman is nevertheless an interesting, ambitious and ultimately very emotional ride. Mulligan is monstrously talented and she brings out her biggest acting guns for this round, her believable, likeable and brilliantly baleful heroine surmounting the cracks in the atmosphere enough to make the film worth the once-over.

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