“Who needs brains? They never did a girl any good.”
A push for societal change is often landmarked when it is raised and examined within popular entertainment; there are countless examples of films, television shows, songs, poems and more that deal with specific societal issues; the fight for LGBTQA+ rights, pushes for equality across racial, class or gender barriers; striving for greater accessibility for differently-abled people. The more that people can point to something in popular culture that speaks about their struggle, the closer we step towards effective societal change; and Promising Young Woman has the qualifications to be one of those landmark pieces of pop culture.
Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a medical school drop-out who lives with her parents, works in a coffee shop, and spends her weekends pretending to be black-out drunk to trick predatory men into taking her home, so that she can frighten them off taking advantage of vulnerable women in future. When she unexpectedly connects with an old classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham), revelations about their other fellow classmates sets her on a path of vengeance…
Promising Young Woman deals with difficult, but essential, subject matter in an utterly sublime way. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell in her cinematic debut, Promising Young Woman masterfully blends black comedy with psychological thriller to create a deeply compelling and shocking piece of cinema, one which can speak to the experience of countless women around the world. The gradual escalation of the weight and threat of Cassie’s past as the narrative progresses, slowly revealing new pieces of the puzzle to draw the curtain back on the story of how she became who she is, is utterly fascinating and, at times, entirely horrifying; and the lengths which she goes to in order to enact her revenge become more and more shocking as the narrative progresses; but while we may question her methods in the moment, Fennell and Mulligan never let us forget that Cassie is the hero of this story, no matter how dark her story gets. There is a reason why this film won an Academy award for Best Original Screenplay.
Carey Mulligan was nominated for an Academy award for this film as well, and it’s clear to see why. This is a career performance from her; carrying the entire weight of the film on her back as there is barely a moment where she is not somewhere on screen, and she takes us on a full emotional journey with her as she deals with the trauma of her past. Her fake drunk acting is superlative; the scene with Adam Brody where we see her trick play out in full is sublime, and her chemistry with Bo Burnham is charming and playful. Her ability to flip moods in a moment is well utilised at various points, especially in scenes where we see her with the targets of her vengeance. The nihilism behind her motivations is clear; and when her desire for vengeance against mankind as a whole is put at odds with her growing affection for Ryan, Mulligan does a great job of demonstrating when Cassie is in control of what’s happening around her, and when she has lost control – be it on purpose or not – and it is this aspect of Cassie’s journey, and Mulligan’s performance, which makes the character so utterly compelling, even when she is behaving at her most heinous.
The supporting cast also put in the work, and built an excellent framework for Mulligan to work off. Clancy Brown and (an uncharacteristically subdued) Jennifer Coolidge are Cassie’s beleaguered parents Stanley and Susan, and present exactly what you would expect from the parents of a 30 year old medical school drop-out who still lives at home. Burnham oozes charm and charisma as Ryan, providing the only truly bright light to shine on Cassie throughout the narrative; and Alison Brie gives a notable performance as one of Cassie’s marks, giving an excellent turn as the bitchy former friend in one of the stand-out scenes from the second act. A selection of America’s most beloved young male actors show up to take a turn as complete creeps; the aforementioned Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Max Greenfield and Christopher Lowell all get the chance to demonstrate why self-proclaimed Nice Guys™ are usually the absolute worst, and all do it well; though arguably none better than Mintz-Plasse, who puts in an incredible turn that will probably make you hate him completely, unfortunately. These men were reportedly all cast due to having been previously cast as good, kind-natured men in previous projects, done to highlight that even the good guys can turn out to be dangerous, and every actor rises to the occasion in that endeavour.
Promising Young Woman is largely set in what looks like a quaint American suburb, with nicely decorated lawns and invitingly-painted houses and shops; further highlighting that sense that women can be in danger in any location. The bright locales contrast superbly with the dark and dingy bars and clubs in which we see Cassie fishing for Nice Guys™, and with Ryan’s apartment; which stands out as the only modernly furnished location we see for the duration of the film. The atmosphere is furthered enhanced by an excellent soundtrack curated by Anthony Willis, featuring a lot of bubblegum pop tracks; some of which presented in their original formats, and some covered by DeathByRomy to present a darker and more threatening presence on the soundtrack; the stand-out for me being a cover of It’s Raining Men. Notable now is a cover of Britney Spears’ Toxic, produced by Willis himself, which also featured in the trailer for Promising Young Woman and feels even more pertinent an inclusion following the full revelations and subsequent dissolution of Spears’ conservatorship. The fact that Toxic is credited as the starting point for the word’s adoption in modern vernacular to describe harmful personality types also makes it a perfect fit for this story; evidence that Willis absolutely knows what he’s doing.
Promising Young Woman is a challenging, dark, and incredibly intelligent psychological thriller that also takes time to be a superb dark comedy, deploying humour efficiently throughout an incredible narrative. With a career-defining performance from its lead, a host of stellar supporting performances from the rest of the cast, and a stunning feature debut from its writer and director; this film is essential viewing for anyone who loves good cinema – just make sure you brace yourself before you dive in.
Dave McGuckin is a theatre graduate, bar manager, former comedian and eternal film lover from Northern Ireland, now living in Canada. He began writing film reviews in 2016 for The Grade and then Great Central, both based in Leicester, England.
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