The opening scene of Promising Young Woman, where a trio of well-dressed, twenty-something business bros at a bar leer at a woman (Carey Mulligan) who appears drunk to the point she’s struggling to stay awake, does more than set the stage for its story. In the long, uncomfortable scene that follows, one of the bros (Adam Brody) decides to play nice guy and offer her a ride to her place. Before long, that leads to a quick detour and nightcap at his place, where his affability evaporates as he gradually forces himself on her. That is, until she reveals that she’s stone cold sober.
“What are you doing?” she asks, partially undressed and startlingly unslurred, seconds before he would have raped her.
With that startling, unsettling reveal, writer/director Emerald Fennell sets her crosshairs squarely on each target as they drift in and out of the story while her finger rests comfortably on the trigger. The centerpiece of Fennell’s arsenal is Mulligan’s performance as Cassandra, who portrays her as droll and detached from the world around her. While she weaponized that detachment, the trauma behind it is gradually revealed, as is the apathetic reaction that drove her over the edge.
A 30-something med school dropout living at home, (hence the “Promising”), Cassandra appears listless in the dull light of day. She lives at home, much to her parents’ chagrin, has no real friends, and outside of her coffee shop boss, Gail (an excellent Laverne Cox), she has no real interest in making them. In lieu of all these 30-something conventions, she frequents clubs, pretends to be drunk to methodically lay her trap. As her motivations come to light, so does the little black book where she documents her progress, a kind of running scorecard for her late-night endeavors, littered with tally marks in-between the names of bro after bro. But as she realizes her master plan, the names get more specific, her traps become more ornate, and the web of her revenge becomes increasingly meticulous.
Though Cassandra’s driven solely by her past and preying on those connected to it, Fennell takes much broader, but equally deliberate aim. Cassandra targets the wolves in sheeps’ clothing, the self-ascribed nice guys who (consciously or otherwise) smuggle their nefariousness under the guise of good intentions. Fennell, who served as showrunner for Killing Eve’s second — and arguably best — season, utilizes her film much like Jodie Comer’s Villanelle savors a kill in the BBC crime drama. Deliberate, merciless, and unflinchingly lethal.
Mulligan, meanwhile, slowly chips away at her guarded portrayal of Cassandra, though stays crystalized in her intent to see her master plan through to its messy, violent conclusion. Even as she cautiously opens up to a potential love interest, Bryan (played by the skillfully cast Bo Burnham, the internet’s flagship ‘nice guy’), her vulnerability is briefly revealed. Though she quickly and efficiently refortifies, it gives a telling glimpse into her humanity, internalized trauma, and emotional scars.
While it’s not an easy watch, Promising Young Woman is clearly a necessary one. A bold, calculated, cathartic indictment of misogyny, rape culture, and victim-blaming. But locked dead center of the crosshairs are the predators who’ve grown so confident in their nice guy veneer that they believe it in earnest. That is, until a certain promising young woman crosses their path.
Promising Young Woman is currently in theaters