Cassie (Carey Mulligan), traumatized by a tragic event in her past, is drifting aimlessly through life working a dead-end job by day and toying with predatory men by night. However, a chance meeting with an old college friend reignites a fiery anger within and sets her out on a path for vengeance against those who crossed her and her loves ones.
Promising Young Woman had made noise in the run up to awards season. How couldn’t it? A provocative project about a sociopath dishing out her own justice to lecherous men at nightclubs, with a proven star in the lead and directed by a notable female TV creator?
In the past, it would have been too hot to handle. Even in a now-more diverse Oscars, Promising Young Woman screams ‘progressive’ and ‘vital’. The trailer, set to strains of a Britney Spears’ Toxic violin cover and rendered in neo-pop bubblegum colours, grabs the attention as a provocative alternative to the other films nominated this year.
But despite all this, Promising Young Woman fails to live up to the hype because it seems to get lost in trying to sell its own story. The film never strays too deep into the depths of gritty cynicism, nor does it lean into a stylized revenge film for fun’s sake. In doing neither it all feels flat, the story unfocused and the compelling lead character Cassie (Carrey Mulligan) seems muddled and lost.
Director and writer Emerald Fennell makes her feature film debut with Promising Young Woman after work on TV show Killing Eve. Strong female characters with dark motives must be Fennell’s forte, because the film doesn’t lack in thrills. Fennell does well to set a base level tension across the film, setting us on edge with every move protagonist Cassie makes. Even towards the film’s middle, where the action slows a lot, we are still waiting for the moment where everything turns. One scene in particular towards the film’s climax releases, at a bachelor party, bristles with energy and intrigue. Promising Young Woman shows that Fennell has filmmaking skill, and we’ll no doubt see her nominated for Best Director again.
Carey Mulligan got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the righteous Cassie – and she does hit the brief. Mulligan brings an aura of charismatic menace to Cassie that is watchable even when the character’s motivations seem unclear. One prominent critic insinuated that Mulligan wasn’t the right ‘look’ and profile to play an unhinged former student. This criticism is lost when it seems (to me) she does a solid job.
The supporting cast includes a slew of recognisable character actors, including Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Alison Brie. These two in particular give notable performances, with their characters core to the toxic gendered behaviour Fennell is illuminating and satirising in the film.
One of the problems with Promising Young Woman is the plotting. The film has little problem generating excitement, with Cassie’s efforts to exact her own justice on everyone who caused her to abandon her future highly engaging.
However, this comes with a compromise of Cassie’s motivations seeming confused. Her toying with predatory young men is fun to watch, but to revenge seeking only come from a chance meeting with someone from her past, undermining any character development at the beginning of the film and making her seem a bit two dimensional. It’s a key issue which is hard to ignore, even as Promising Young Woman unfolds to an exciting finale.
Despite an exciting (and unexpected) end, Promising Young Woman is weighed down by unfocused characterisation and a slow middle which holds it back from ‘classic’ status. Excellent? No. Oscar-worthy? Not the same as excellent. It’s a film we all should see – but it may not have you captivated at every turn.
Promising Young Woman has a lot to say. Its satire of gender politics and dating culture is much-needed, and in certain places well done. However, the film suffers from a meandering plot towards the middle which takes too long to heat up. 7/10.