Review: ‘Promising Young Woman’ is a Bold, Effective Revenge Thriller

Promising Young Woman Carey Mulligan
Carey Mulligan stars as “Cassandra” in director Emerald Fennell’s ‘Promising Young Woman’ (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features)

Writer/director Emerald Fennell’s wickedly entertaining Promising Young Woman is a gratifying – albeit disturbing – revenge thriller. Carey Mulligan is brilliant as an intelligent, promising young woman who spends her nights teaching sexual predators lessons they’ll never forget.

Fennell’s best known for shepherding the terrific second season of Killing Eve as showrunner. That show’s dark humor is similar to what Fennell’s incorporated into this twisted revenge tale. They also have a similar sense of heightened reality to seemingly normal situations.

The story follows Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a former medical school student who left college following a traumatic event. That event, the description of which is withheld for the first half of the film, left Cassie damaged and no longer interested in pursuing a career in medicine. She now spends her days working at a coffee shop and her nights in bars pretending to be drunk and vulnerable. There’s no shortage of men willing to “help” this defenseless, intoxicated woman get home, and Cassie keeps a ledger of the reprobates who attempt to take advantage of her while she’s in a helpless state. These lecherous creeps are always shocked to discover Cassie’s fully in control of her senses as well in control of their encounter.

Other than her nightly excursions to expose vulgar men who prey on vulnerable women, Cassie’s withdrawn into herself and appears to enjoy only the company of her boss, Gail (Laverne Cox), at the coffee shop. Cassie’s moved back home and her lack of ambition and depressed personality have her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) justifiably concerned about her mental state.

It’s only after Cassie begins dating handsome pediatric surgeon Ryan (Bo Burnham) – following a unique meet-cute involving spit – that her mom and dad believe there’s a chance their smart and funny daughter will re-emerge.

Ryan appears to be a nice, well-adjusted guy who makes Cassie happy. Their connection allows her to lower her defenses, relax, and breathe. The traumatic event from college doesn’t fade away but Cassie’s able to push those memories to the side and enjoy Ryan’s love and attention.

But Promising Young Woman is a revenge thriller which means a happy, healthy Cassie can’t possibly last long, right? Cassie wants/demands a reckoning for what transpired in college. As her quest for atonement takes shape, it’s impossible not to crave a just outcome for this promising young woman.

Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is full of ugly men (effectively played by Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who deserve whatever Cassie dishes out. This is the perfect film for the #MeToo movement, but also the perfect film for those who love stylish, unique dark comedies. The subject matter is serious and disturbing, but Fennell manages to infuse this twisted tale with moments of unexpected hilarity – often at the most shocking of times.

In the titular role, Mulligan delivers an incredible, career-defining performance that’s complex and heart-wrenching. Mulligan plays Cassie as strong yet vulnerable, whip-smart with an edge, and with a wicked sense of humor. The film shifts tone – sometimes within a single scene – and Mulligan easily slips into Cassie’s many moods.

Focus Features’ Promising Young Woman is a brutally honest yet completely unexpected twist on the female empowerment/revenge fantasy. Don’t just read the synopsis and assume you know the score. Fennell pulls off complicated plot twists without cheating or playing loose with logic. And that final act is, well, let’s just say it’s all you could hope for and yet not in the least bit what you expected.

GRADE: A

MPAA Rating: R for sexual assault, language throughout, drug use, some sexual material, and strong violence

Release Date: December 25, 2020

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes