Director – Emerald Fennell – 2020 – US – Cert. US R – 113m
A med school dropout seeks revenge on the students and others complicit in her best friend’s rape years before – on Sky Cinema and Now from Friday, April 16th
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) goes to bars, gets wasted and is picked up by men whose intentions are less than honourable. However, all is not what it seems – before you can shout spoiler alert (and we’re not going to because this is the start of the film, given away in the trailer and effectively part of the narrative set up) she’s not wasted at all, only pretending. Depending on exactly how dishonourable these men’s intentions are, she exacts her revenge accordingly.
These acts are premeditated in the sense that she goes out, entraps men and does what she does, but not in the sense that she knows any of the men beforehand. Indeed, they choose her, so you could argue their fate is self-inflicted. And were any of them to behave chivalrously – take her home, put her to bed, not try to take sexual advantage, perhaps phone the next day to check she was okay – she’d probably look favourably on them for doing the decent thing. However, protests that these predatory men are “a nice guy” or “a gentleman” really don’t cut it. “I find gentlemen are the worst,” she says.
There’s a personal history behind these spur of the moment acts. Cassie and her friend Nina dropped out of med school years ago following an incident where the drunken Nina wound up in a men’s dorm and was gang raped. Complaints went nowhere – the college authorities sided with the men, refusing to believe the young woman’s testimony with justifications such as “boys will be boys” and “we don’t want to jeopardise a young man’s career”.
Having abandoned both her personal dream of becoming a doctor and the American Dream of making a success of yourself (defined in terms of a large income and social prestige – a problematic issue the film completely fails to address but, hey, you can’t do everything in one movie ), Cassie holds down a poorly paid day job in a coffee shop with a good boss Gail (Laverne Cox) for whom she enjoys working. She still lives at home with her disappointed yet supportive parents Stanley (Clancy Brown) and Susan (Jennifer Coolidge) who would like her to get a more prestigious career and/or find a nice boy and settle down.
While there’s zero chance of the former, the latter looks like it might happen when Ryan (Bo Burnham) comes into the coffee shop one day, recognises her from med school days and starts to romance her. This is clearly a good thing and before long, she’s taken Ryan home to meet her delighted parents. Meanwhile, she carries on going out, entrapping and punishing men at night. Moreover, as Ryan fills her in on what’s happened with her former fellow students over the decade since she quit, she starts to track them down one by one to exact revenge for what they did to Nina.
This allows the presentation of a gallery of those complicit in Nina’s rape. Madison (Alison Brie) is a woman who chose not to pay any attention to allegations, Elizabeth Walker (Connie Britton) is the college dean of who did nothing about the complaint, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) – on the verge of marrying a bikini model – is the chief rapist. They all seem pretty reprehensible and Madison only offers up a video of the rape (which we never see, merely hear as Cassie watches it) under pressure.
One character does show genuine remorse, though, a lawyer (Alfred Molina) who made Nina keep quiet and has regretted his part in the affair ever since. Seeing his torment, Cassie exacts no revenge and leaves him be. Clearly there is room for forgiveness where the perpetrator demonstrates true repentance.
Other perpetrators and abettors are not so lucky, with Cassie focusing her energies on Al Monroe’s bachelor party at a secluded woodland lodge where she turns up in a fully fetishised nurse costume and lures him upstairs to the bedroom…
Carey Mulligan has a lot of fun with a role that is both hugely enjoyable to watch and groundbreaking in its portrayal of how women are treated by men…and, indeed, of other women complicit in pro-male, anti-female bias. She moves effortlessly between feminist vigilante, woman wronged, good daughter, romantic lead and unhealthy obsessive, the latter apparent in a scene where Nina’s mother (Molly Shannon) tells Cassie the young woman really should move on.
Director Fennell looks to be enjoying herself too, with some nicely drawn characters – many of the sort that audiences love to hate, but a number of them more complex too, dark but with certain redeeming features. And she also herself a delicious cameo as the maker of online advice video about blow job lips make-up.
There are clever twists and turns and a great ending. More importantly, though, this grapples with the way men and women treat each other and is commendably unafraid to push well beyond accepted Hollywood cliché on the subject. See it.
Promising Young Woman is out on Sky Cinema and Now in the UK from Friday, April 16th.