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Promising Young Woman [Video Review]

If There Be Scorn: Fennell’s Debut a Stellar Portrait of Rape Trauma’s Rippling Effects

Emerald Fennell Promising Young Woman ReviewHeretofore, the rape revenge thriller has been something of a problematic presentation in cinema. The cheaply constructed catharsis born from masculine perspectives and their attempts to navigate a woman’s emotional experiences in response to rape and sexual assault ranges from well intentioned exploitation such as I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman) or any number of high-profile dramatic representations in morbid, if effective melodramas (The Accused; Death and the Maiden, Elle, etc.).

Writer and actor Emerald Fennell (“Killing Eve” scribe and “The Crown’s” Camilla Parker Bowles) balances an exceptionally fine line with her directorial debut Promising Young Woman, which commands the assertions of troubling communal ripple effects in the wake of rape by displacing the usual locus of a woman scorned upon a helpless bystander. More uncomfortable in tone for its blending of aesthetics usually partitioned off into high and low brow genre formatting, it’s both a timeless grappling with the heteropatriarchy as it is a pertinent contemporary conversation piece about rape culture and trenchant victimization.

Divided into chapters, we meet the troubled young woman Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), pulling a Looking for Mr. Goodbar but with the intention of teaching men a lesson about consent with women who seem inebriated. Just turning thirty, we learn through her parents (Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge), she dropped out of medical school seven years prior and now works a dead-end job in a café for an exceptionally understanding boss (Laverne Cox). One day while working, she runs into an old romantic interest, Ryan (Bo Burnham), who she knew from school. He’s now a pediatric surgeon and he’s curious as to what happened to her. An awkward flirtation leads to a date or two…and romance blossoms. But so do returning memories of her school days, where her best friend was raped, Cassandra dropped out to care for her prior to an eventual suicide in a lack of empathy from the Dean of Students (Connie Britton) and a lawyer (Alfred Molina) who badgered her. Cassandra re-integrates herself with some of these school peers, including Madison (Alison Brie), and an altercation leads to information which formulates Cassandra’s plans for an act of vengeance upon the man who raped her friend.


Mulligan has perhaps never been in finer form as Cassandra (aptly evoking the Greek priestess who spouted truths but was doomed never to be believed), irreparably marked by her best friend’s tragedy which has not only resulted in her arrested development but also a troubling penchant for vigilantism. As we meet her on an initial foray into nightclubs on her personal mission to punish men who can’t help but take advantage of lone, inebriated women, Fennell wisely keeps Cassandra’s actions ambiguous. Is she murdering them? Maiming them? Exposing them? Eventually, everything is revealed, but we’re always unsure of Cassandra’s swath of wreckage, and perhaps the only real catharsis possible is the fantasy one can privately administer. Unfortunately, and even discouragingly, there’s no real representation of a heterosexual male who seems inclined to do the right thing, which includes embracing the notion of expiation or redemption.

Fennell’s tonal shifts feel curious because Cassandra’s plight is presented in the hyper exaggerated parameters prone to black comedy or even satire, ways to assuage the difficulty faced in consuming such narrative subjects. And yet, this is consistently resisted, even toyed with thanks to a variety of supporting cast members who we presume are on hand to provide comedic relief. But neither the morose or matter-of-fact mothers played by Jennifer Coolidge or Molly Shannon, Laverne Cox as a sympathetic boss, or other comedic counterparts like Sam Richardson, Adam Brody, Alison Brie or Bo Burnham generate such expected energies. Even Christopher Mintz-Plasse is on hand as a movie nerd creep (a lover of Panique and Satyricon, based on the posters in his apartment). Fennell’s inspirations are more macabre, utilizing a snippet of The Night of the Hunter (1955) as a prelude to Cassandra’s eventual climax.

And as we are led on this path of revenge, which is ultimately unfulfilling at least as regards a thorny protagonist we’re led to empathize with and care for, Fennell charts a surprisingly emotional resonance, assisted greatly by DP Benjamin Kracun (of the recent Monsoon) and a stellar soundtrack, ranging from a near-throwaway moment of levity courtesy of Paris Hilton, to a moody instrumental cover of Britney Spears’ Toxic and one of the better uses of Juice Newton’s signature track Angel of the Morning.

★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Promising Young Woman – Movie Review

Chief Film Critic Nicholas Bell reviews Promising Young Woman (2020) / IONCINEMA.com.

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Film Credits:
Producers: Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara, Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Ashley Fox, Emerald Fennell.
Executive producers: Carey Mulligan, Glen Basner, Alison Cohen, Milan Popelka.
Co-producer: Fiona Walsh Heinz.
Director: Emerald Fennell.
Writer: Emerald Fennell.
Camera: Benjamin Kracun.
Editor: Frederic Thoraval.
Music: Anthony Willis.
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody , Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Alfred Molina, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lowell, Max Greenfield, Francisca Estevez.

Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Emerald Fennell, Benjamin Kracun, Frederic Thoraval, Anthony Willis, Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody , Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Alfred Molina, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lowell, Max Greenfield, Francisca Estevez, Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara, Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Ashley Fox, Carey Mulligan, Glen Basner, Alison Cohen, Milan Popelka, Fiona Walsh Heinz

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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