Promising Young Woman (2020)

EMERALD FENNELL

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

/USA, 2020. , , . Screenplay by Emerald Fennell. Cinematography by . Produced by , , Emerald Fennell, , , . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by . Academy Awards 2020. American Cinema Editors Awards 2020. Golden Globe Awards 2020. Independent Spirit Awards 2020. Las Vegas Film Critics Awards 2020. National Board of Review Awards 2020. North Carolina Film Critics Awards 2020. Online Film Critics Awards 2020. Philadelphia Film Critics Awards 2020. Phoenix Film Critics Awards 2020. Washington Film Critics Awards 2020.

The opening scene of this stylish, exciting drama sees Carey Mulligan sitting alone in a club, drunk to the point of falling asleep in her seat after apparently having come from the office for a few drinks and enjoyed a few too many.  A group of guys swarm her like vultures until the seemingly nice one () offers to take her home in a cab, then conveniently asks if she wants to stop by his place for another drink instead?  Practically comatose at this point, Mulligan is flipped onto Brody’s bed as he helps himself to her body until the tables are suddenly turned on him: she sits up, sober as a priest, and asks him what exactly he thinks he’s doing?  The first act of the story is Mulligan traversing the clubs of Los Angeles as a kind of avenging angel, drawing men into her trap through their own unethical behaviour and holding up a mirror that shows them exactly who they are (director Emerald Fennell purposely, and slyly, chooses actors famous for their cuddly personas for key roles throughout, from Brody to , and ).  In the second act, Mulligan is properly wooed by a former med school alumnus (Eighth Grade director ) and given the opportunity out of the dangerous game she’s been playing, and through his interactions with her we piece together information that helps us understand how she got here, namely a traumatic incident in college that inspired her to drop out, abandon her plans in medicine and devote herself to making right the things in the world that feel so systemically and fundamentally wrong (namely, that girls who dress provocatively and drink too much are held more accountable for what happens to them than the men who do things to them in their vulnerable state).  Her relationship with Burnham also puts her in touch with other figures from the past, and when an incident inspires her to get back on the path of revenge, it begins the third and final act.  She leaves her anonymous targets behind and goes after the specific people who are responsible for her nightmarish life, namely her college dean (), a fellow former classmate () and a young man who has escaped punishment for his wrongdoing and is about to get married.  While the elements of the plot sound in description like they’re cobbled together randomly from the most oft-repeated grievances of stories shared during the excitement of the #MeToo movement (and, in some instances, the dialogue falters when characters utter the most oft-repeated phrases cited in social media posts), Fennell tells her crafty tale with so much perverse humour that the obvious nature of its aims never feel tiresome or unintelligent.

Mulligan has all the sensitivity and grit that the role needs and, after false starts with her performances in Shame and Drive, is for the first time totally convincing as an American; more impressively, she is convincing as someone who is so accustomed to being haunted by the past that it’s no longer something she feels actively, instead surrounded by it like a gloomy perfume.  Where all this great effort falls apart, though, is in the film’s conclusion, one which is hard to accurately criticize without spoilers but which, quite frankly, only makes sense on paper. Tonally, in execution it feels undeserved and somewhat ridiculous, ruining the pleasure of the gleeful vengeance that has been so delightful, describing a psychic break in the main character that we never see (this is where Mulligan’s natural good sense hits a wall with where the character can go).  Revenge tales usually acknowledge that seeking retribution from others, and giving as good as you’ve gotten, means taking on a lot of moral darkness at a price, but Fennell wants a zero sum game in which her lead character gets to be in control of herself as an innocent victim without it ever getting too complicated, enjoying raising the taste of blood in our mouths before pulling the rug out with a big finish that veers into preachy theory.  If she wants to tell us that true justice in the issue of sexual assault comes at too high a price, I won’t argue with her, but considering that she spends the whole movie already proving it, the ending feels like more of a punishment of the audience than on the bad guys.  It undoes the lead-up of some really powerful observations, from the harsh truths of women failing to support other women, to men who want to pave over past misdeeds as mere youthful folly, not to mention the older generation (her parents) who just don’t get what’s happening.  People can rarely talk about sexual assault without turning the figures involved into icons of good and evil, something that Fennell has a good time playing with jokingly throughout most of the movie until she gets muddled in her own game, turning her protagonist into a symbol instead of a person and cheating us of the payoff for what we are so invested in.

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