Someone’s coming for you, all you rapists, sexual predators, and even you friends and colleagues who enable them. She doesn’t look like much, but she’s out there going through your garbage and your social media feed, applying her powerful intellect to your detritus to ferret out your weaknesses and formulate a plan to blow up your life. That drunken prank you thought you got away with in the early 2000s? She knows about it, and she knows just how and when to use it against you. She is the Promising Young Woman in the title of this thriller that drops in theaters this Christmas, which leaves you wondering how a movie this evil could also be so very, very good.
We begin with Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan) doing what she normally does on a Saturday night: going to a bar in a sexy outfit and acting like she’s falling-down drunk. An off-duty dudebro (Adam Brody) bundles her into a cab ostensibly to make sure she gets home safe, only to take her to his own apartment and start taking her clothes off. Imagine his surprise when she turns out to be stone-cold sober. Such is her routine until she hears that Al (Chris Lowell), the date rapist whom she met in medical school, has returned home to Ohio after years working in London. Now he’s marrying a bikini model and setting up his practice. His bachelor party will be attended by their classmates who lied to protect him and forced Cassie to drop out. What an opportunity to pay them all back!
What differentiates this film from other rape revenge movies is that the rape Cassie is looking to avenge is not her own, but rather her deceased best friend’s. This makes her dangerous, because her mind is clear and her victims don’t anticipate her coming after them. While her lust for retribution opens her up to violent blowback, she acts with zero regard for her own safety — when a motorist at an intersection calls her a cunt, she takes a golf club from her car and smashes up his truck. Carey Mulligan plays this scene and the rest of her performance with a terrifying calm reasonableness, a quality that also shows up when she faces down predators and details the observations she has gleaned from her adventures in rape culture. Watch her burn slowly in a scene at a restaurant where Cassie treats one of her ex-classmates (Alison Brie) to lunch and circles this suburban mom, plying her with alcohol before confronting her with her role abetting the rape. Cassie arranges to have this woman wake up next to a strange man and lets her go for weeks thinking that she’s been raped, because that is how hard-core Cassie is.
This does come with a significant downside. The movie shows us what life is like for someone consumed by vengeance, and it ain’t much. Cassie works at a coffee shop that even its owner (Laverne Cox) thinks is a hole. She still lives with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and forgets her own 30th birthday. She can’t confide in anyone, not her parents, not the boss who wants to be her friend, and certainly not the kind, courteous pediatric surgeon (Bo Burnham, a.k.a., the director of Eighth Grade) whom she starts dating. She has too much invested to stop, even when her dead friend’s mom (Molly Shannon) begs her to and points out that her revenge quest isn’t accomplishing anything. Late in the story, Cassie makes a discovery that causes her as much trauma as she has inflicted on other people. She presses on.
This is a sparkling debut feature from Emerald Fennell, the British actress and writer who’s currently playing Camilla Parker Bowles on The Crown. Like her dialogue, her observations about sexual assault are often lethally true. The rapists (played by charming actors like Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) are smart enough to spout feminist koans so that unsuspecting women think that they’re too woke to be a threat. With the exception of a broken-down defense lawyer (played by an uncredited Alfred Molina), Cassie’s victims don’t regret what they’ve done, and not only do their denials and rationalizations ring familiar to us, they do so to Cassie, who is not having any of their “We were just kids” or “I’m not that person anymore.” Also true is that one guy at the bachelor party (Max Greenfield) who discovers a dead body and efficiently goes about disposing of it — there seems to be a guy like that at every bro hang. Fennell drapes everything in candy colors that’s not blood red, and she comes up with a devilish visual joke by framing Cassie’s head against a circular wall ornament so that it looks like an angel’s halo.
I think we’ll see more movies like this. I mentioned in my Wonder Woman 1984 review that it feels like a woman’s response to the Trump administration. The government of Boris Johnson, who seems to have groped more than a few boobs and buttocks in his day, has run almost concurrently in the U.K., and this year we’ve already had Amulet with its supernatural creatures taking revenge on a sexual predator. Cassie and Promising Young Woman scare me more than any pelvis-bursting bat monster. At least on the screen, it feels like the reckoning is imminent for the male characters we might have given a pass to earlier. The filmmakers who take on that subject will need to do some work to exceed the accomplishments and the fun of this movie.
Promising Young Woman
Starring Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell. Rated R.