A rousing plot of vengeance against bad men is provided by this acerbic, Oscar-winning dark comedy.
But will wisdom be sought in assuming the worst future for everybody?
Promising Young Woman, the tart dark comedy by writer/director Emerald Fennell that coats a riotous revenge plot for rape with a pastel sheen, steps into a tantalizing, twisting trap: Cassie, a singularly obsessed character played by Carey Mulligan with singularly impressive depth, pretends to be almost passed out in a bar, plays along with a disgusting man’s predatory machinations, then flips th ‘What are you doing?’ she asks, stone-cold sober suddenly. It’s not really surprising the first time Cassie falls into the pit in the opening sequence of the film – if you’ve seen the teaser, you know her revenge story – but considering it’s The OC starlet Adam Brody playing the slick predator, the architecturally calibrated lowering of the façade by Mulligan is a jolt that’s tantalizing and unnerving.
But by the second trick, when Cassie shocks and convicts another dorky loser (this time played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse from Superbad), the excitement of exposure wears off. I tried to make a good case for this trap – the film needs you to cheer for this hook.
Midway through the film, I had to hit the pause button when Cassie targets her former medical school dean (Connie Britton) in a final vendetta for her unseen best friend (I’m not going to ruin what exactly is behind her anger, but it’s not difficult to guess) who turned a blind eye to her disastrous actions. The movie was touted as an exciting revision of the drama of tired rape-revenge, a #MeToo romp that delights in punishing bad men who justify themselves.
But Cassie’s crippling fascination with the reduction of her character to the long shadow of the worst thing that ever happened to her felt frustratingly deadly, not giddy or revelatory. The movie did not sound edgy or provocative, but rather, like a very recent remnant from the early, heady days of #MeToo collective rage, with its singular emphasis on vigilante justice.
With its acerbic bite and somber fatalism, Promising Young Woman is purposely disturbing, but when I saw it at the end of 2020, it felt unsettling, like a disgruntled album.
Its molten core propelled me back to the end of 2017, when in the public forum the early #MeToo campaign was filled with white-hot rage – a constellation of private pain suddenly provided undefined, if still revealing, structure. There were plenty of deep-rooted hooks on which to hang indignation: the Harvey Weinsteins, the lingering outrage sparked over the case of Brock Turner, the self-remembered 2012 Steubenville High School gang rape caught on cell phone video (a crime and trauma close to the unseen disaster at the heart of Talented Young Woman) that landed in a very different media landscape, along with the Daisy C story
But more than three years after the #MeToo campaign exploded, more than a decade after loose flotsam on the internet containing story after story of horrible, excused, regular, infuriating sexual harassment incidents, and after the failure of our society to speak about it with psychological empathy, we know that there are bad men, bad excuses, and bad records. Unmasking is a thrill ride which is limited. In its sharpest shades, Promising Young Woman cooks up an archetypal attack story: vigilantes and cruel, unchanged men, a woman whose trauma subsumes her identity. Where is the wisdom in this revelation? When rage runs high, what’s left?
Part of the nano-specific anachronism of Talented Young Women is due to the long pipeline of film production, expanded further by the pandemic (after a hyped debut at Sundance, Focus Features pushed the wide release date from April to Christmas Day), and the hyper-speed of the Internet of the late 2010s, where day and week cultural conversations bubble and burst. The film has its strengths – the performance of Mulligan as she takes advantage of the doubt about the blonde, white femininity of Cassie with her feathery bangs, rainbow manicure and bubblbling