Carey Mulligan elevates 'Promising Young Woman' into feminist vigilante thriller
"Promising Young Woman" -- ★ ★ ★ ½
"It's every guy's worst nightmare!" says a guy, talking about being accused of sexual assault.
"Can you guess what every woman's worst nightmare is?" replies Cassie, a coffee shop barista forced to drop out of medical school after a traumatic episode destroys her life, so now she prowls after-hours bars in search of predatory male prey like a feminist Charles Bronson from the vigilante classic "Death Wish."
Just as Jordan Peele's "Get Out" used horror conventions to shake white viewers out of their racially privileged bubbles, Emerald Fennell's "Promising Young Woman" utilizes rape-and-revenge movie tropes to slap clueless males into sudden awareness of their culturally invisible chauvinism.
"Promising Young Woman" opens with Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan) apparently blind drunk and passed out on a red couch in a bar.
"They put themselves in danger, girls like that," mutters a guy who's been casing Cassie for a while. Fennell's crackling screenplay instantly reveals the mindset of a sexual predator who imagines that when girls "put themselves in danger," they -- not the guys -- will be responsible for whatever happens.
The man offers to take Cassie home. Once there, he thinks he will have an easy time taking advantage of the woman's inebriated state.
But a big surprise looms, one of many narrative detonations in a genre-defying, cliché-free directorial debut that introduces Fennell -- a former writer on the British TV series "Killing Eve" -- as a ferociously bold visionary willing to go places where less-secure filmmakers fear to tread.
In "Promising Young Woman," Fennell places rape culture squarely in the crosshairs of her camera lens, targeting the dark and powerful Weinsteinian attitudes that enable and normalize sexual shaming and victimization.
For Cassie's 30th birthday, her parents give her a piece of luggage, an unsubtle message for her to consider finally moving out of their house.
But she's seemingly content to stay, begrudgingly working at the coffee shop. One day, she runs into a former med-school classmate named Ryan (Bo Burnham, director of the inspired tweener comedy "Eighth Grade"). He's now a successful pediatric surgeon, and he asks Cassie for a date.
Later, Cassie attends a curiously tension-filled lunch with a former pal and classmate Madison (Alison Brie), now married to a man who just might be a part of the reason Cassie dropped out of school.
Tensions really escalate when Cassie returns to her almost-alma-mater to confront a dean (Connie Britton) who has conveniently expunged all memory of horrible accusations against the college's star pupil.
By Chapter III (Fennell strategically divides her story into chapters), Cassie seems to be gung-ho on a messianic mission to hold people accountable for past actions (or inactions), among them a highly defensive professor (Alfred Molina), and former students at a long-ago sordid bachelor party, parts of which may have been captured on a camera.
In Chapter IV, justice arrives, and we never see it coming.
"Promising Young Woman" beats with the heart of an exploitation film (mostly like Abel Ferrara's visceral 1981 rape-and-revenge opus "Ms .45") but employs the edgy smarts of a shrewdly observed anthropological study.
Since hitting the silver screen as Kitty in 2005's "Pride and Prejudice," the versatile, London-born Mulligan has established an impressive track record of elevating whatever project she appears in.
However clunky Fennell's exposition might be, and however implausible some of Cassie's cleverly plotted machinations might seem, Mulligan's confident, immersive portrait of a deeply wounded warrior of truth propels Fennell's daring film into the realm of blistering social commentary.
Some men might be shocked.
Most women, not.
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Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alfred Molina, Alison Brie, Connie Britton
Directed by: Emerald Fennell
Other: A Focus Features release, available on streaming. Rated R for drug use, language, sexual situations, violence. 113 minutes