Film & Television

Promising New Director and Her
‘Promising Young Woman’

In 1987, Glenn Close and Michael Douglas starred in Fatal Attraction. Dan (Douglas) was a devoted family man who had a weekend fling with Alex (Close), a business associate. Dan assumes he’ll return to homelife-as-usual when his wife (Anne Archer) and daughter return from the country. Alex assumes not — and proceeds to terrorize him, growing ever more desperate and dangerous. Almost immediately, various plot twists and lines became part of the vernacular: like the boiling rabbit and “I’m not going to be ignored.” (My then-boyfriend’s housemates warned him not to date me because my name is Alex.) It was remarkable how quickly Fatal Attraction’s tropes became part of the late ‘80s zeitgeist. Reviewers predicted that married men would never cheat again.

Dan was a “good man” who did a bad thing. And he paid for it.

In Promising Young Woman, the mind-blowing feature film debut of director/screenwriter Emerald Fennell, there are lots of “good men” willing to do a bad thing. Heroine Cassandra Thomas (the sublime Carey Mulligan) will make sure they pay for it. 

There are also “innocent” witnesses, bystanders, and enablers. Cassie makes sure they pay too.

Promising Young Woman, which was recently in the running for a number of Golden Globes, including Best Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Lead Actress (nudged out, respectively, by Nomadland, Chloé Zhao, Aaron Sorkin, and Andra Day) would have hit theaters last April had COVID not hit first. Instead, the film was held until this winter, when it was released in a limited number of cinemas and available to rent on demand. It’s a shame that most people will experience it on the small screen, because Fennell is tackling some very big ideas.

When we first meet Cassie, she’s in a bar, alone, and so drunk she can barely walk, talk, or otherwise function. A group of “bros” notice her and comment, “They put themselves in danger, girls like that.” The seemingly nicest of them (Adam Brody) goes over to see if she needs help. He offers her a ride home, but along the way suggests she come to his apartment instead. There, he pours her a generous drink and pours her into his bed. Although she’s barely conscious, he starts pawing at her, eventually kneeling down to pull her panties out from under her skirt. “What are you doing?” she slurs. “You’re safe; it’s okay,” he assures her. Then she sits up, stone cold sober, and repeats herself. “I. Said. What. Are. You. Doing?”

Back home, Cassie pulls out a well-worn journal, records his name, and adds another tick to pages and pages of them. Apparently, Cassie is — and has been for some time — the avenging angel of consent. In the audience, we suddenly get it, and we think we know where the rest of the movie is going.

We’re wrong. Promising Young Woman is far more complicated than it seems.

Cassie’s story plays out slowly. It’s her 30th birthday, and she is bright and attractive. But, having dropped out of medical school several years before, she still lives with her frustrated parents (Clancy Brown and a deadpan Jennifer Coolidge), who give her a not-too-subtle suitcase for a birthday gift. She works as a barista with employer/friend Gail (Laverne Cox), who urges her to get a life.  Everyone seems to acknowledge that she’s suffered some sort of loss, but they encourage her to move on. Of course, these well-meaning people don’t know about her after-hours missions.

One day, an old med school colleague comes into the cafe. He recognizes Cassie and after awkwardly questioning what a top medical student is doing making coffee, asks her out. (Their “meet-cute” involves expectoration — don’t ask.) The timbre of the film changes as we head into familiar rom-com territory. Ryan (Bo Burnham), a pediatric surgeon, seems to be a genuinely good guy. For a time, Cassie is torn between her growing affection for him and her after-hours activities — until she hears that one of their classmates is getting married. She resumes her crusade, but now she’s getting ever closer to a specific target.

She reconnects with Madison (Alison Brie), married and a mother of twins, gets her drunk, and forces her to talk about the past — in particular, a case of sexual assault involving two students; we assume that the victim, Cassie’s best friend, has committed suicide. Confronted with Madison’s excuses, “I wasn’t the only person who didn’t believe her,” and, even worse, “You can’t behave like that and then cry wolf,” Cassie slyly sets the woman up so she can better empathize with the victim.

She confronts the med school’s Dean Walker (Connie Britton), who coolly denies remembering the alleged attack; assures Cassie that it must have been thoroughly investigated; casts aspersions on young women who get themselves into trouble; and finally hides behind the platitudinal “Innocent until proven guilty, right?” Again, Cassie finds an ingenious way to make Dean Walker experience the horror and fear in which she was once complicit.

She also tracks down Jordan, the lawyer who represented the accused, so many years ago. It turns out, after years working for a firm that specialized in turning courts and judges against rape victims — “You wouldn’t believe how easy it is now with social media” — he is haunted by what he’s done. He begs Cassie for forgiveness and, although she certainly had other plans when she arrived, she grants it.

The plot turns on details that feel as if they’ve been pulled from the nightly news: drugs slipped into drinks, a videotaped crime shared on social media but ignored by the authorities, and a “promising young man” whose future is protected even as his victim is destroyed. The film’s climax is at once a stroke of genius and a shocking chain of events. The ending is simultaneously tragic and triumphant. Like her namesake, the Trojan princess Cassandra, Cassie speaks the truth but isn’t heeded. And, if her actions are a sign of madness, those who ignored her are to blame.

Blame is just one of the themes in Promising Young Woman, and Mulligan, under Fennell’s fine direction, doesn’t make Cassie wholly blameless. There is shared culpability, and the film leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth as it suggests that there are very few “good” men out there. Given the right (meaning wrong) circumstances, most men would either initiate, partake, or stand by and observe what the defendant’s attorney might obliquely refer to as “non-consensual sex.” The critique of pervasive and normalized rape culture here is devastating. 

Fennell, who is in her mid-30s and best known as an actress in The Crown and Call the Midwife, as well as showrunner for the second season Killing Eve, calls her film “Beautifully wrapped candy, and when you eat it, you realize it’s poison.” As she explained in an interview with Variety, “I wanted to make the movie feel like I think a lot of our lives feel, which is that they are beautiful, and they are horrific.”

She’s passionate and articulate about the film’s subject matter. “You can’t write a film like this unless you examine yourself and your own past. If this is a movie about forgiveness, it’s important to say this is just a culture we’ve all grown up in. The incidents in this movie are in every romantic comedy, every TV show — we laugh at them. When I was thinking about the character of Madison, I had to think about how I might have done better in the past. Of course, you want certain characters to be all bad or you want to hate them. But there’s also a kind of rotten truth to it, and there are so many arguments from both sides: ‘It happened to all of us.’ ‘But I really like him, and I’m not sure he would.’ ‘What if they don’t believe me?’ The movie itself is just a sample of the excuses and the lies that we tell ourselves when we let ourselves down.”

Every element of Promising Young Woman, from the lighting, to the music (including songs by both Paris Hilton and Britney Spears), to the casting of traditional “good guys” (Brody, Brie, and Britton) as “bad guys,” is deliberate and endlessly affecting. Mulligan, who is always excellent, is even stronger here than we’ve seen her before. And Fennell’s script and direction are simply brilliant. Promising Young Woman will stay with you long after the credits roll, and it raises issues you’ll want to discuss with others. Especially with men.

Who knows? Like Fatal Attraction so many years ago, maybe Promising Young Woman will be taken to heart as a cautionary tale. Maybe it will make a man stop and think before he tells a drunken woman, “Don’t worry. I’ll take you home. You’re safe.”

And maybe, just maybe, she’ll actually get home safely. 

Promising Young Woman is available to rent on Amazon or through your cable company.


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