Sometimes, the sheer force of a single performance can elevate a film, taking what would be a run-of-the-mill project and turning it into something truly special. Such is the case with Carey Mulligan and Promising Young Woman, a social diatribe disguised as a pitch-black comedy, a film that takes no prisoners as it examines sexual abuse and its far-reaching consequences. Its basis has been used in more than its fair share of exploitation flicks, the movie resembling a female-driven Death Wish with a wicked sense of humor. But it winds up being much more than that, thanks to the sharp-edged writing from director Emerald Fennell and a fierce performance from Mulligan who grounds her character's sense of guilt and vengeance in sincerity and remorse.
Cassandra Thomas (Mulligan) was once a woman of great promise. However, she dropped out of medical school soon after her best friend, also a pre-med student, was brutally raped by multiple men at the college they attended, ultimately committing suicide. Living at home and languishing in a dead-end job at a local coffee shop, Cassie is seemingly adrift — that is until nightfall, when she goes out to bars, pretends to be drunk and allows herself to be picked up by a "Good Samaritan," who invariably reveals his true colors when he tries to take advantage of her. Our heroine soon reveals herself to be stone sober, turns the tables on her assailant, and we see her putting hashmarks in a well-worn notebook each morning after, a signifier of her campaign of revenge against men like those who had assaulted her friend.
It seems like a dead-end path with no good end, that is, until she reunites with Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate who belatedly acts on his attraction to her. They go out a few times, Cassandra finds she can stomach him and even toys with the notion that while 99.9 % of men are scumbags, Ryan may be a keeper. Could love and a healthy relationship be in her future?
Of course, that would be too easy and runs counter to Fennell's intentions. There are no happy endings to be had here; this is a world of victims and abusers and very little in between.
Like any well-done revenge tale, the story proves engaging, as it speaks to us on a primal level, appealing to our sense of right and wrong, the vengeful hero a worthy cathartic figure whose only intention is to balance the scales.
Run-of-the-mill entries are satisfied with providing simple vicarious thrills and little else. However, Promising is one of the few that digs deeper, revealing exactly what is driving Cassie, not simply looking at the violence she commits but the pain she's incapable of relieving. Mulligan, one of the great actresses of her generation, wears a wide variety of masks here and is convincing in each. Whether a "drunken" temptress, a sharp-edged coquette, avenging angel or wounded child, her sincerity validates every facet of Cassie's personality, in the end creating a flawed woman we can easily relate to. While we may be put off by some of her actions, in the end we long to comfort her, as futile as that would be. Mulligan delivers a complex portrait of madness that can't help but affect the viewer.
Fennnell's one misstep is in the way she portrays men. Every single one of them is reprehensible in one way or another. This broad stroke approach runs counter to the complex examination of her heroine, a narrative flaw that's hard to excuse. Still, Mulligan is a sight to behold, and while Promising might not be one of the year's best films, her performance certainly is.
Promising Young Woman is available through Video-on-Demand services.