Why Promising Young Woman is such an incendiary, unforgettable tale of fury

Why Promising Young Woman is such an incendiary, unforgettable tale of fury

The Oscar-nominated Promising Young Woman – which is finally getting its UK release on 16 April when it streams exclusively on Sky Cinema and Now TV – should be required viewing for all. This is why.

Emerald Fennell – writer, director and producer of Promising Young Woman – summed it up perfectly when she called her film a “beautiful trap.” 

She was talking about the way it looks: candy-coloured and fluorescent, shimmering with Instagram-ready vignettes and soundtracked by the stickiest, sweetest pop hits you ever did hear. (Paris Hilton’s Stars Are Blind! Charli XCX’s Boys! Is this the best movie soundtrack of all time?)

“I love Paris Hilton, and I love Britney. I love manicures. I love clothes,” Fennell has said. “Those don’t make me a silly person. I think often they’re dismissed, those sorts of things. And so I wanted to be like, ‘Just because a girl looks like this does not mean she isn’t holding a world of terror and rage inside her.’”

The trap is immaculate and lush. It’s wearing dungarees and Glossier-pink mohair sweaters and silky, cornflower blue wrap dresses. It welcomes you in. And that’s when you realise how deep this rabbit hole of rage goes.

This isn’t a drama – it’s a horror film.

Promising Young Woman is an impeccably-made movie from Fennell – her debut feature. Shot over a blistering three week period in early 2019, the movie premiered at Sundance in 2020 en route to a cinematic release in April, before coronavirus derailed those plans and everything else last year. 

Now, the movie is finally slated to hit cinemas, off the back of serious awards season buzz. Fennell is nominated at the Oscars three times – for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture, as producer – and her star Carey Mulligan is nominated for Best Actress. Both are hotly favoured to take home hardware at the ceremony on 26 April.

The film follows Mulligan’s character Cassie, a 30-year-old woman who has dropped out of medical school for reasons unknown. At the start of the movie, we know that Cassie is a woman on a mission. Most nights, she leaves her home and goes out to a club where she meets a series of ‘nice guys’ who want to take her home. (These nice, good, decent guys are played in the film by actors including Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse; we should build entire cities in tribute to the casting director of Promising Young Woman.) 

When they take her home, they discover that she’s not the drunk woman they were expecting. In fact, she’s stone cold sober, and she’s ready to hit them with the hard truths. “I’m a nice guy!” one splutters, upon making that discovery. “Are you?” Cassie responds quietly, head tilted ever-so-slightly – in contemplation, and consternation.

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The film opens on one of Cassie’s missions into the belly of a nightclub, encountering a character played by Brody – Seth from The OC, the prototypical, Platonic ideal of a ‘nice guy’. 

“It’s OK, you’re safe, shhh,” he whispers at her, as he ushers her into a taxi whisking her to his place. 

Under Fennell’s precise direction, and thanks to Mulligan’s searing performance, turbo-charged and raring to go, this opening scene is terrifying. This isn’t a drama – it’s a horror film.

Carey Mulligan shines in Promising Young Woman.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear there’s a method to all of Cassie’s nights out. She goes to these clubs seeking these ‘nice guys’ for a reason. Because when she was at university, Cassie’s best friend Nina was assaulted at a party, and Cassie wants justice to be done. She’ll stop at nothing to get it, too, approaching the dean of the university where Cassie was once a prize-winning medical student, demanding to know why Nina’s assault was never investigated. 

“What do you want me to do?” the dean asks. “Ruin a boy’s life every time we get an accusation like this?”

This energy is carried throughout the film, with the introduction of Cassie’s love interest Ryan, played by Bo Burnham. Another nice guy who seems too good to be true. On the most part, Fennell balances the dark with the comedy immaculately – though mileage for the film’s ending, which has proven controversial, does vary. 

No spoilers, but Fennell has described the ending as a realistic end of the road for Cassie to hurtle down. I’m not sure that I entirely agree, but I see where Fennell is coming from. When the story takes its devastating final turn, it’s clear that there’s only one way for it to go from there, and there is power in Fennell’s unflinching script, and the way she doesn’t shy away from the toughest of resolutions.

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Again, this is the ‘trap’ that Fennell was talking about when summing up her film. The movie is predicated on revenge, and there is an incandescent fury that ripples through the film, in ways both big and small. But this movie ultimately isn’t driven by anger – and in that sense, perhaps ‘revenge’ is the wrong word to describe Promising Young Woman, although many have used it when trying to explain the slippery canniness of this film. It’s not rage that ultimately powers this movie, it’s love: Cassie’s love for Nina and the friendship they shared. A relationship so strong that it’s the one thing that Cassie is holding onto, while the rest of her life falls spectacularly to pieces.

It’s why the movie’s best scene is one in which Cassie reconnects with Nina’s mother, the only other person in the world who understands the burden that Cassie has been carrying. It’s here that Mulligan’s performance really matures, with the actor adding shades to her character’s grief and trauma. Mulligan’s Oscar nomination is deserved from this scene alone – and it more than merits a win. But this scene is also quietly devastating, especially when Nina’s mother begs Cassie to move on, to let it all go. She doesn’t understand that Cassie can’t move on. That she can’t let it go. Promising Young Woman is a movie that understands that someone might choose to stay, swimming inside their darkest grief, because that’s where the last shred of the person they have lost remains.

In a review of the film, Vulture noted that “rage can be a sanctuary, and it can also be a dead end.” And a trap. A beautiful, unforgiving, terrific one. 

Images: Focus Features

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