Written and Directed by Emerald Fennell | 113 min | Netflix
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) works at a coffee shop and lives with her parents, Susan and Stanley (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown). She’s just turning 30, though she’s not really paying attention to those kinds of milestones. She used to be a medical student. Not anymore. She keeps a running list of the number and names of men she meets in bars and clubs — some in red ink, some in black. Every week when she goes out she pretends to be black-out drunk until some dude offers to take her home. When she’s alone with the guy she snaps awake and makes sure he knows where he stepped over the line.
But, how far does she take it? What do those colours in her tally book indicate? Early on, Cassie’s doing “the walk of shame” after one of those nights out, eating a hotdog. She might have blood on her arm… or it could be ketchup. Writer-director Fennell — formerly of the writers’ room of the terrific series Killing Eve and an actor, she’s Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown — at first plays in the ambiguity of what Cassie is up to, daring us to vicariously enjoy her exploits, while also denying explicit detail what she’s doing every time she goes out. Cassie walks a razor, and the picture dares us to choose if we want her to cut.
As we go along, we start to have a better understanding. Yes, this is a revenge thriller, an exploration of deep and lingering trauma, and a dab hand with spy games, too — Cassie’s living a kind of double life, her nocturnal activities a secret she keeps from her clueless parents and her few friends and acquaintances, like her coffee-shop boss, Gail (Laverne Cox).
Then she runs into Ryan (Bo Burnham), someone with whom she used to be at medical school. He’s now a paediatric surgeon. He seems to be a decent fellow, and reflected in him we begin to see more clearly the darkness in Cassie’s motivations. Something happened back at school that changed her life — it’s there even as the picture takes a step toward romantic comedy conventions.
I won’t say any more about where this is going, but for the most part Fennell serves up a slab of white-hot wish-fulfilment. I challenge anybody not to enjoy how Cassie deals with the road-rage douche-bucket in the pick-up. When Cassie catches up with a former classmate (Alison Brie) and the dean of her former school (Connie Britton), we see the limit to her vindictive mission. She’ll pull back from the edge if only to allow her to continue without legal repercussions.
Until the final act, that is. To the strains of a cello covering Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, her master plan goes into full effect. Cassie sees a big picture here, even if we don’t.
At least one astute writer has parsed what happens here with Michaela Coel’s remarkable series I May Destroy You — if you go there, spoilers ahead — and I concur: they’re both post- #MeToo narratives with something to say about what assault does to the victim and those who love them, the societal and legal impunity men still enjoy, and what might be changing. If Coel’s series offers a more complex framework around race and the multifaceted options for letting go of trauma, the skill and intensity of Fennell’s storytelling also impresses.
Promising Young Woman is a picture that gingerly straddles genres with a confidence that belies the filmmaker’s status as a relative novice — consider this is her first feature. It also hinges on a top-tier performance from Carey Mulligan who richly deserves whatever accolades are surely on their way.
Had I seen Promising Young Woman, officially a 2020 release, last year it would’ve easily broken into my list of the year’s best films. Don’t miss it.