“Promising Young Woman” is a darkly curious mix of comedy and noir thriller which will surely disturb you for good reasons. The movie is rather uneven and disjointed at times in handling relevant gender issues, and I still have some reservation on whether its final act works as well as intended, but the overall result is still compelling nonetheless thanks to not only its competent direction but also one of the most memorable performances of last year.
The movie begins with the captivating opening scene unfolded inside a nightclub during its busiest hour. After the camera looks around many drunken dudes and their body parts for a while, the movie comes to focus on a mundane conversation among three guys, and their attention is subsequently drawn to a young woman who is sitting alone and also looks quite inebriated. When one of these three guys eventually approaches to her, she does not seem to mind his approach that much, and then, after some talk between them, he comes to help her get a taxi ride to her residence.
Shortly after they get on the taxi, the guy suggests to this young woman that they should go together to his residence instead, and she accepts his offer without much hesitation. After he gives her some extra drink at his residence, the mood becomes a bit more serious as it is quite apparent to us that he is going to take advantage of her, but then the situation is suddenly turned upside down as she turns out to be quite sober with a twisted purpose behind her back.
Her name is Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan), and we gradually get to know the current status of her life during the first act of the movie. Since she quit her medical school some years ago, she has lived in her parents’ cozy house for several years, and her parents hope that their dear daughter will move onto the next stage of her life sooner or later, but she does not seem to be so interested in that while continuing to work in a local coffee shop as usual.
Every night, Cassie goes to any local bar or nightclub for luring any potential male target to be intimidated and humiliated by her, and we come to learn that this is her private ritual of vengeance for her best friend, who also studied at that medical school before a certain horrible incident. Although that incident in question is not specified to us at first, you will easily guess what happened to Cassie’s best friend as watching Cassie intimidating her latest target with her cold, unforgiving anger and then giving a harsh lesson he will probably never forget.
Meanwhile, there comes a little unexpected change in Cassie’s life. When she is working in that local coffee shop as usual, she happens to encounter a good-looking lad named Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham), and it soon turns out that he was one of her schoolmates in that medical school. Although she does not welcome him much, he keeps trying to come closer to her nonetheless, and she eventually comes to have a date with him.
As her life is brightened up by her growing relationship with Ryan, Cassie gradually finds herself becoming conflicted in more than one way. As reflected by a little sweet musical moment between them, Ryan surely looks like an ideal boyfriend for her future, but she does not give up that private ritual of vengeance at all while not telling anything to him, and that eventually leads to a serious trouble at one point later in the story.
In the meantime, her relationship with Ryan also brings back her to the past. Via Ryan’s casual remarks, Cassie comes to learn of the current status of the guy mainly responsible for what happened to her best friend, and that finally gives a clear direction for her vengeful mind. Besides that guy, she becomes quite determined to punish several other persons associated with the incident, and we accordingly get a series of unnerving moments including the one involved with a female administrator of her medical school.
The screenplay by director/writer/co-producer Emerald Fennell, who has been mainly known as the show-runner of British TV drama series “Killing Eve”, stumbles more than once during its last act due to several plot contrivances, but these and other notable weak aspects of the film are mostly compensated by its distinctive style and mood. Via its deliberately bright color scheme, the movie is constantly filled with the warped sense of reality, and we accept its several wild mood shifts along the plot to some degrees.
Above all, the movie is firmly held together by another strong performance from Carey Mulligan. Looking and feeling quite different from her lovely breakthrough performance in “An Education” (2009), Mulligan is utterly uncompromising and electrifying in her stark appearance, and she is also supported well by a number of different supporting performers including Bo Burnham, Allison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina, and Molly Shannon.
On the whole, “Promising Young Woman” is not entirely without flaws, and its problematic handling of gender issues may bother you a lot, but I recommend it anyway because of its style, mood, and performance. Although it could be more coherent and focused in my humble opinion, Fennell makes a striking feature film debut on the whole, and I guess we can have expectation on what may come next from her during next several years.