Published on February 9th, 2021 | by Jennifer Sparrowhawk0
A Promising Young Woman
Carey Mulligan has a star turn in A Promising Young Woman, a smart story about “nice guys” that is layered with both rage and humour.
*Editor’s Note: some spoilers follow.
A Promising Young Woman is not always what it seems. From writer/director Emerald Fennell, the movie is a revenge thriller, dipped in pop music and sprinkled with dark humour. Actors like Adam Brody and Chris Lowell, historically typecast as wholesome dreamboats, play rapists. Exuberant comedians like Molly Shannon and Jennifer Coolidge play mild-mannered moms. And a pretty blonde, Carey Mulligan, with a candy-coloured manicure, is a vigilante.
The opening sequence is a meet-cute, a quintessential element in romantic comedies when two lovers meet for the very first time, usually under adorable circumstances. Here, it’s set in a bar amidst the 9-5 after work crowd. A young woman, Cassie (Mulligan), has gotten herself into quite a pickle. Appearing to have had a lot too much to drink, she can’t stand, can barely speak, she’s alone, and has lost her phone. Oh jeez, what a mess! Luckily for her, a chivalrous, attractive young man (Brody) happens to notice her vulnerability and insists on helping. Afterall, everyone knows the bad things that could happen to a woman who is out alone at night in her condition. She asks for help getting to her home, but somehow she ends up at his place. This fella is completely smitten already! He is polite enough to overlook her nausea in the taxi. In fact, he gives her a painfully long-lasting, impassioned kiss once they’re at his place. The whole thing is very Lars and the Real Girl, but with kumquat liqueur and, well, a real girl. He doesn’t even mind that she doesn’t kiss back. That’s how enchanted he is.
By the time he puts Cassie on his bed, she is almost entirely unresponsive. He’s a really great sport when his flattery is lost on her. He knows there is an unspoken connection, something bigger than both of them. As he tenderly pulls her underwear down her lifeless legs and is about to reach up her skirt, Cassie’s eyes snap open. She sits up, stone sober, looks down into our guy’s face between her knees and calmly confronts him with the question, “What are you doing?” Her tone isn’t particularly scornful, just direct. It is not rhetorical. She wants an answer.
This quest for accountability is Cassie’s goal throughout the film as she confronts, at first, random strangers, and then those complicit in the rape of her best friend, Nina, seven years prior. Nina was so damaged by the assault and her rapist’s total lack of consequences that she dropped out of college and took her own life. Cassie’s targets for reckoning consist of the dean of the college (Connie Britton), their college friend Madison (Alison Brie), who blamed Nina for her own assault, the lawyer who defended Nina’s rapist (Alfred Molina), and of course the rapist himself, Al (Lowell). Cassie shows mercy only to those that express genuine remorse over their complicity.
The film ends with Cassie crashing Nina’s rapist’s bachelor party in a cabin secluded in the woods. He doesn’t want to, but Al does something very bad to her. He is a “nice guy” so obviously he is upset about it afterward. He even feels responsible at first, until his friend (Max Greenfield) convinces him he did nothing wrong and helps him cover his tracks in time for his wedding. Afterall, life must go on. Romantic comedies often end with a wedding, here it serves as a backdrop for Cassie’s spectacular contingency plan to unfold.
The uncanniness of the casting and candy-coated aesthetic has proven a befitting framework on which to build a palatable allegory about the culture of rape where nice guys are not as nice as even they think, and drunk girls are not always drunk. A Promising Young Woman is a captivating story, and it has a deliciously cathartic aftertaste.