Content Warning: Sexual Assault.
The rape-revenge genre is extremely hard not to spoil. The vast majority of these films should never be made, as they either treat sexual assault as a way to objectify the survivor, or they rely on the idea that trauma is empowering, or some other trope that clarifies the people telling the story. do not know how to treat this subject with the respect it deserves. Promising young woman approaches the genre with ambition and if he succeeds, it is because he lets himself be messed up. There are no heroes in this movie, only people who make choices, for better or (usually) for worse.
In Promising young woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends her weekends acting as a one-woman crusade to eradicate rapists and rape culture and to punish the men who perpetuate it. She spends her evenings in bars, pretending to be too drunk to sit up, let alone consent to sex. Yet week after week there is a self-proclaimed “nice” guy who brings her home and tries to sleep with her, at which point she reveals her sobriety and revel in their shame.
Cassie made this ruse her only goal in life. Once a promising young woman, yes, she dropped out of med school and now lives with her parents and works as a barista (in what she calls a crappy cafe but also Laverne Cox is her boss so that part doesn’t not seem all that bad). This is the life she chose for herself and she did it in an attempt to avenge her best friend Nina, who was raped while they were in medical school together. No one believed Nina, from their classmates to the administrators, who chose to protect the potential of the responsible boy rather than investigate or punish him.
Cassie says she’s reused her life in her friend’s service, but it’s obvious to everyone except her that it’s not Nina. We never even see Nina. Taking Nina’s trauma as his own doesn’t help anyone, it’s actually a pretty selfish thing to do, and Cassie is clearly in a developmental state. Her choices aren’t ambitious, but that doesn’t mean they’re not very satisfying to watch.
This satisfaction comes from the film’s intensely stylized aesthetic. This is writer / director Emerald Fennell (who currently plays Camilla Parker Bowles in The crown) debut as a director and she definitely established a brand style. The film has a brilliant shine and a soundtrack of bangers that make Promising young woman feel at home with female-led action movies like Atomic blonde or Birds of prey, although all “action” here is psychological.
Carey Mulligan’s performance in this film is an exceptional career in an already illustrious career, here handling humor as skillfully as tragedy. And the cast of men around her is adorable. Fennell brought in some of Hollywood’s most typical gentlemen (Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, Bo Burnham) for a movie where the dominant message seems to be that there is no such thing as a really good man.
Promising young woman is the kind of movement that was designed to be divisive – to stir the pot and make a big difference. The rape-revenge formula here is pretty straightforward, which will seem subversive to some, but others will no doubt see it as regressive. The end is a wild ride – a definitive finale to love or hate – which we’ll have to dig into later. The ethics of this film are a deliberate mess and the discussions that will ensue are perhaps as thrilling to me as the film itself.
Promising young woman has a release date of December 25, so you can spend Christmas watching Carey Mulligan shame sexual predators. Happy holidays indeed.
(image: Focus functions)
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