In the dark comedy Promising Young Woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) works at a coffee shop by day and hunts sexual predators by night. She goes to bars, pretends to be falling down drunk — and then confronts the men who try to take advantage of her.
“When I was growing up — and I think still probably it’s the case now — in movies, getting women drunk to sleep with them, filling up their drink more than you’d fill your own, waiting at the end of the night to see who’s drunk at the club, girls waking up not knowing who’s in bed next to them — it was just comedy fodder,” Fennell says. “We live in a culture where this sort of stuff is normalized.”
Cinema is not short of rape-revenge movies, perhaps the most troubling of sub-genres. Any vicarious thrill from seeing these films’ antagonists hunted down by avenging angels (typically, but not always, the victims of rape) in work as varied in style and quality as The Last House on the Left (1972), Ms .45 (1981) and Dogville (2003) tends to be tempered by the scenes of sexual violence themself, which are rarely handled in a manner that don’t result in accusations of exploitation on the part of the filmmakers, who are of course usually male. The latest entry in the sub-genre, Promising Young Woman, avoids such obstacles from the off. First, it’s written and directed by a woman (Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell) and second, the catalyst for the protagonist’s revenge happens off-screen, a decade earlier.
This isn’t to say Promising Young Woman avoids depicting male sexual violence. The film follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a med school dropout who spends her evenings pretending to get hammered in local bars, where, inevitably, a white knight will offer to get her home safely while hoping to take advantage of her near-comatose state in the process. Here the rapists aren’t junkies or hoodlums, but fedora-wearing hipsters, coked-up geeks and chino-clad young professionals having an after-work beer; men who don’t think of themselves as bad guys but whose behaviour with girls they believe to be black-out drunk proves otherwise.
Details of Cassie’s vendetta are somewhat fuzzy. We see her mark up the number of men who have taken her home in a notebook, five-bar gate-style. The tallies, of which there are dozens, are denoted in both red and black.
There’s a suggestion that Cassie may be murdering the men marked in red, but the film never confirms if she is a serial killer. Perhaps this isn’t revealed because Fennell wants Promising Young Woman to work as both a romantic comedy (Bo Burnham is completely winning as the one man in Cassie’s life who isn’t a douchebag) and a pitch-black comedy too.
Visually and sonically, the film is similarly full of contrasts. The aesthetic suggests Jeff Koons by way of Nicolas Winding Refn. By day, the world is kitsch and candy coloured, all pink coffee shops and quaint local pharmacies, while by night we’re in a seedy, neon-lit world curiously scored to a slowed-down version of Britney Spears’ Toxic, which incidentally sounds remarkably similar to the atonal strings of Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin, another film about a woman scouring the town for horny men. Other pop songs deployed in interesting new contexts are The Spice Girls’ 2 become 1 and, hilariously, Paris Hilton’s reggae-pop disaster Stars are Blind.
Remarkably, the film almost works on these terms, thanks mostly to Mulligan’s sensational, multifaceted turn as Carrie, who’s both dangerous and vulnerable, cold and caring; her enigma is as tough to crack as some of the film’s twists. It’s just a shame that Fennell throws all this good work away on an ending that manages to be both so bitter it curdles the whole picture but also cowardly in its crowd-pleasing wish-fulfilment. The urge to have your audience leave with a spring in their step is understandable, but Promising Young Woman’s jokey final note rings oh so hollow.