Films of the thriller genre are, contrary to their name, quite unpleasant affairs – grim, macabre and saturated in greyscale, they aren’t exactly the most pleasant of affairs. What’s needed is a picture imbued with a greater energy, one that retains the chilling storylines of its counterparts without sacrificing entertainment value.
Once an aspiring doctor, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) nowadays works at a twee Los Angeles coffee shop, an unassuming job that pays for her after-hours activities. On any given evening, she can be found at one of Tinseltown’s many nightclubs, where she will perform the same routine: pretend to be drunk, lure a “nice guy” into taking advantage of her and be brought home to his apartment, where Cassie will enact her revenge.
It’s not until a chance encounter with former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) that Cassie ceases with her wayward hobby, instead becoming preoccupied with matters of courtship. As the two become closer, Cassie begins re-evaluating her life choices and it looks as though she’ll diverge from her anarchic ways; but when the opportunity arises to seek vengeance against old foes, Cassie cannot help but return to her same old habits.
Promising Young Woman marks the directorial debut of Emerald Fennell, who gained prominence as an actress on TV’s Call the Midwife before succeeding Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the showrunner of Killing Eve. Fennell’s picture predictably (and blessedly) mimics the approach of the latter programme, being a taut, subversive thriller with a decidedly sardonic tone – one that’s present as much in the visuals as it is the screenplay.
Contrary to most thrillers, Promising Young Woman adorns both its characters and locations in vibrant colours to provide a distinct, appealing façade; likewise, Cassie’s clothes hark back to the bright fashions of the post-war era, being elegant, tasteful and a style that suits Carey Mulligan perfectly. So pleasing are the idiosyncratic visuals that the film is worth seeing for them alone; but of course, they aren’t the only aspect worthy of appreciation.
Juxtaposing with the upbeat aesthetics is the screenplay, which ventures to some rather dark places – including frequent mentions and references to sexual assault. Tensions are high from the beginning, with Cassie almost immediately having to endure the advances of a predator, and amazingly, the suspense continues to grow from there. Naturally, there are also plenty of references to the #MeToo era, with some welcome barbs at society’s ever-prevent misogyny and chauvinism.
Unfortunately, in taking aim at the patriarchy, Promising Young Woman exposes its biggest flaw: a lack of menace. All the hype surrounding this film has framed it as a no-holds-barred, savage takedown of rape culture, yet when the time comes for that to happen, the script relents, and viewers are left wishing otherwise. Make no mistake – the movie does bite, and knows when to do so, but never seems to sink its teeth in. As a result, it comes across as rather soft.
Another issue with Promising Young Woman is the static camerawork. Aside from the occasional tracking shot and parallel, Wes Anderson-style framing, oftentimes the photography is flat and lifeless, bearing closer resemblance to an amateur student film than its contemporaries. Perhaps if events were captured at an unconventional angle, or the camera moved more freely, then the picture would better match the quality of other Hollywood productions.
Pleasingly, the performances are up to standard, some of which are pretty stellar. Carey Mulligan is magnetic as the multifaceted Cassie, being most delightful when she’s behaving sinisterly; yet the best acting is found in the supporting players, chiefly Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil, Alison Brie as Madison, and a one-time supervillain in an uncredited, scene-stealing appearance.
While Promising Young Woman is not the “game-changing masterpiece” that some circles are heralding it to be – the peculiar cinematography and restrained savagery are to thank for that – it remains an eye-catching, engaging feminist thriller that compels right up until the end credits roll.