Cassie Thomas (Carrey Mulligan) likes to play drunker than she is in bars. She likes to pretend to be vulnerable and compromised so that when a “good” Samaritan approaches her and offers to take her to safety, she can discover their true intentions. What happens next is a little mysterious. Perhaps some harsh words, perhaps something harsher, but blood is definitely drawn at least once. Cassie is, however, preparing something much bolder, and she hopes to finally find closure and justice for an old grievance.
Rape Revenge films have been a staple of cult and exploitation cinema since the 60s and 70s. Interesting perspectives have come care of Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge which very effectively saw the perpetrator become prey. Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Women is unique for truly demonstrating that it takes an entire village to perpetrate this kind of violence. From the rapists themselves to all those who enable them, ignore them and tolerate them. The men and women who become the targets of Cassie’s schemes are are complicit in their complacency. The most uncomfortable scenes are those in which Cassie confronts an old friend (Allison Brie) about the incidents and finds no sympathy, only defensiveness and denial.
But the film is far from dour. It’s an electrifying thriller that recalls Under the Skin but with an undeniably unique identity. The thrill of seeing Cassie turn the tables on her prey is palpable. Though the film threatens a Michelle Haneke style “life sucks” ending, it instead suggests that to affect real change in our society, the only recourse is for promising young women to sacrifice everything, and that’s simply not good enough. It’s a painful watch but it will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.
Stylistically Fargeat and her cinematographer Benjamin Kračun utilise a punky colour palette and stark use of light to create a world that oscillates from fanciful to bleak. The fantasies that Cassie indulges her victims in are provocative and absurd. A multicoloured plumage to disguise her sinister intentions. Some of her outfits are sure to become iconic. Yet some of the more affecting and memorable moments come when Cassie is off-mission. The film makers clearly illustrate the seductive pleasure of playing Cassie’s game to reclaim the power so devastatingly used against her friend, but also create a warm and welcoming impression of the life Cassie is unable to enjoy.
But the strongest asset of the film, beyond it’s sharp script and striking aesthetic, is Carey Mulligan’s lead performance. Her righteous quest sees her perform truly vindictive acts against those who commit the crimes against women and those who defend or ignore them, yes Mulligan plays the character as deeply sympathetic even at her most sadistic. It’s a powerful performance driven by her charisma and pathos.
Promising Young Woman is a film everyone should see. Because it’s an absorbing and compelling thriller, because it’s a showcase for Carey Mulligan’s talents as a performer, because writer-director Emerald Fennell is an exciting new cinematic voice, and of course because everyone should experience the pain of living in a society that not only allows the destruction of promising young women but also defends them from those who would seek justice. The film posits that this quest for justice shall be successful, but at what cost?