“Promising Young Woman” – Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is on tour.
No, Cassie doesn’t play in a band and trek across the country, although she could double as a punk rock act’s dismissive lead singer or perhaps, a local symphony’s cellist. Ms. Thomas is attractive, thin, whip-smart, and she just turned 30. She also turns most men’s heads, while working as a barista at Make Me Coffee or frequenting the clubs around town.
Cassie’s on tour alright, but she’s embarked on a sneaky, seductive side-journey. On a typical night, she’ll pretend to be inebriated, attract a potential one-night-stand suitor, and call out his unwanted sexual advances. This femme fatale wants his clumsy fumblings to go just a bit too far, so she can confront the anonymous womanizer, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Think of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) from “Death Wish” (1974), except Cassie purposely makes herself an easy target in Ohio watering holes, not a New York City subway car.
Do CT’s encounters become violent? Well, you’ll have to watch this 1-hour 47-minute mesmerizing dark comedy/crime drama to discover the answer, but please be assured, she’s quite effective at her job. Well, spinning a web as a Black Widow of sorts isn’t a lucrative, healthy vocation, and that’s one of Cassie’s massive problems. It turns out that she’s not currently a promising young woman, although she used to be. Seven years ago, her world fell apart, and most unfortunately, she hasn’t shaken a singular, horrific event. It’s emotionally ripping her to ribbons on the inside, but she overcompensates by presenting a cool-as-a-cucumber cover.
Well, writer/director Emerald Fennell rips a sensational feature film debut inside and out. With a provocative, unpredictable script, striking and frequent straight-on framing of Cassie (and her parents’ home) from beginning to end, and Mulligan’s highly memorable, Oscar-worthy performance, this promising young director leaves her mark on the 2020 movie landscape.
From the get-go, Fennell presents an adversarial relationship between the sexes.
Her opening sequence features doughy professional fellas strutting their stuff on the dance floor, as the camera mostly focuses on their beer bellies bursting inside their Ralph Lauren button-downs and hanging over their belts and khakis. The old saying that “every woman wishes to be Barbie, but every guy thinks that he’s G.I. Joe” truly resonates here, as these eager boys are blowing off steam with drinks and tomfoolery. So many average Joes laugh it up, but Cassie is the sexy, lone Barbie who lays a trap for tonight’s victim.
Most ladies – I imagine – will also appreciate our director’s perspective on the everyday disrespect or the lack of plain common decency that virtually all women have experienced. This ever-present theme takes on a few essential forms and channels the frustration with laser focus through Cassie, a vigilante who fights this universal wrong that has existed for as long as men and women have walked the earth.
Mulligan’s Cassie owns a stand-up-and-cheer, steely superhero superiority, as she frequently delivers verbal assaults that turn her adversaries from bravado bros to quivering quitters. She’s in clear command but also reveals her vulnerabilities – from underneath her hardened outer shell – to the audience. Not only has our flawed protagonist coped with individual male advances, but also with a society built on inherent inequities. She promptly takes no prisoners on two separate threads: the aforementioned never-ending John Doe spree and a distinct, well-planned revenge plot.
With a playful, comedic, and sobering screenplay that careens our hero through modern-day inconveniences, the story takes dark turns but offers hopeful levity with Bo Burnham’s breezy, accessible arc as a potential love interest for Cassie. Perish the thought, right? She doesn’t have openings on her schedule for romance, but perhaps Ryan (Burnham) is the male outlier to melt her heart.
Anything is possible, and with Fennell and Mulligan steering this cinematic ship, I’ll buy into anything that they’re selling. Hey, can Cassie double as Blink 182’s frontwoman?
Actually, in a way, she does.
⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: Focus Features