‘Promising Young Woman’ and Its Candy-Colored Revenge Is the Best Film of 2020
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Promising Young Woman is a spectacularly disreputable potboiler of a film, and if you think that’s meant to be a diss, well, not so fast.
Emerald Fennell, the young writer-director in her feature debut, has crafted a genre-busting feminist thriller that’s as kicky and satirical (and gleefully twisted) as the best of Brian DePalma, which is an odd thing to say as DePalma has often been accused of misogyny in his work. (I understand the criticism, though I often find it facile.) In many ways, Promising Young Woman is a corrective to the age-old trope of ‘woman as victim’ in glossy thrillers and an update of the much-heralded femme fatale of film noir.
“I’d been thinking a lot at the time about the way that rage and anger manifests itself, particularly in women when we don’t traditionally, in spite of what most revenge movies tell us, resort to violence,” the director has said. “It was looking at the different ways in which women act on those feelings, if they do. … And it was pretty hot on the heels of it becoming a much bigger, more global conversation.”
No doubt her film will amplify that conversation, largely in part due to Carey Mulligan’s career-best performance, recently anointed Best Actress by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, as Cassie Thomas, a young woman haunted by a traumatic med school event that went unpunished.
Much of the fun of the film is in its feints and surprises, so I won’t overstate the plot here other than to say that the performance allows Mulligan to role-play in various disguises (there’s a doozy with a sexy nurse’s outfit and rainbow fright wig that looks like an homage to Melanie Griffith in both Body Double and Something Wild) and to confront an endless supply of tried-and-true excuses that she hears, ad nauseum, to justify some truly egregious behavior around sexual assault (“We were just kids”; “But I’m a good guy”; etc.).
“The reason I wanted to be in it,” Mulligan has said, “is because I felt it was nothing I’d ever read or seen before. And I want people to feel that feeling that I felt when I read it: of I can’t believe this concoction can work. And what a thrill. It’s a magic trick, and you don’t see that very much these days. You kind of always understand how the magician’s done it. And with this, I just don’t think you do.”
Mulligan gets great support from a variety of actors in roles big and small. Adam Brody, as Jerry, helps set the tone of the film (let’s call it candy-colored revenge) in a pre-credit sequence as a nice guy who offers the inebriated Cassie a shared Uber home (that conveniently stops at his apartment on the way).
Laverne Cox gets to crack wise as Gail, the owner of the coffee shop — Make Me Coffee — where Cassie works. Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown are Cassie’s parents; she, worried about her daughter’s anti-social tendencies, tries, with no subtlety whatsoever, to get her to move out of their house; he, the doting father, gives her the benefit of the doubt while secretly harboring a return to normalcy.
Connie Britton is the supercilious Dean of Cassie’s former med school. And best of all is Bo Burnham, the baby-faced writer-director-comedian, as a possible love interest whom, on the surface, seems like the perfect fit for his acerbic, mysterious girlfriend.
No doubt there are more award-worthy titles out in the marketplace right now vying for year-end accolades: serious, thoughtful, important films that suck the air out of the room while they vacuum up little statuettes in their wake.
Promising Young Woman is fresh and exciting and risk-taking, dark and funny and scathing in its social satire, yet it may also be upsetting to many who watch it (hence why it may come across, as I mentioned at the offset, as disreputable). It’s also, as far as I’m concerned, a modern classic, and the best film of 2020.