MANILA, PHILIPPINES — It’s often been said that revenge is a dish best served cold. The search for justice and retribution is something seemingly inherent in human beings who have been wronged. Recent years have seen more and more women stand up for themselves in fighting back against men. The #MeToo movement has toppled several males in powerful positions and has made men more aware that lewd behavior will no longer be tolerated. It is in this spirit of accountability that writer/director Emerald Fennell presents her powerful film Promising Young Woman.
Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a medical school dropout who lives with her parents and works at a small Ohio coffee shop. She spends many nights acting drunk in bars, getting men to take her home, then revealing her sobriety when they inevitably attempt to take advantage of her. When former classmate Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) recognizes her at the coffee shop, he asks her out on a date and mentions some old names when they were at medical school together.
It is revealed that Cassie left medical school when her best friend, Nina Fisher, was raped by another classmate, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) but he used his connections to discredit Nina. This led to Nina’s suicide even after Cassie cared for her. Cassie has been plotting her vengeance on the people she feels are responsible for Nina’s death. These include Madison (Alison Brie), who didn’t believe Nina when she accused Al of raping her. All’s lawyer Jordan Green (Alfred Molina) dug up dirt on Nina to tarnish her reputation. Even the dean of Forrest University, Elizabeth Walker (Connie Britton) tried to justify her siding with the rapist instead of the accuser.
Even as she systematically plots to take each of these people down, Ryan continues to woo Cassie, giving her some semblance of hope that there might just be a decent guy for her. However, something in Ryan’s past pops up to take that away from Cassie, placing her back on the path to seek justice for Nina in the most brutal way possible. When Cassie commits herself to one final bit of roleplay to strike back at Al, the climactic scene is something unexpected yet brilliant.
For fans of television shows, the name Emerald Fennell might ring a bell since she portrayed Camilla Parker-Bowles in the third and fourth seasons of The Crown. She also served as a writer and executive producer on Killing Eve. Yet here, she chose a controversial topic which plays out like a very dark comedy to make her directorial debut for a feature film. The result is a Best Motion Picture – Drama win at the 78th Golden Globe Awards, Best Original Screenplay and Outstanding British Film at the British Academy Film Awards, and nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Film Editing for the 93rd Academy Awards.
In Cassie, the audience is presented a modern-day avenging angel in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp at a time when chauvinism and toxic masculinity have been called into question. Mulligan plays several aspects of Cassie: bitter over the loss of her best friend, still living in a house with her parents, going out every night to target men who would take advantage of women, and yet still hoping against hope that she can actually find happiness with another person. Mulligan manages to strike a balance between all of these before ultimately giving in to her rage and primordial need to avenge Nina.
The scenes when Cassie works at the coffee shop are bright with light colors that are in stark contrast to the times that Cassie feigns drunkenness at the clubs in her crusade. Despite Cassie’s commitment to striking back on her friend’s behalf, when Ryan does present himself as a nice guy who seemingly wants to be with her, she allows herself some moments of happiness, perhaps seen at its finest when she and Ryan start singing and dancing to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind.” Thus, when the truth about Ryan appears, it crushes the last semblance of hope in Cassie and pushes her over the edge.
It would be a crime to merely place Promising Young Woman as a thriller or a revenge flick because there are very funny parts in it that are marks of dark comedy. For Fennell and her screenplay to bring these elements together so masterfully is brilliant, and it is the most surprising of the Oscar-nominated films for Best Picture. That award often goes to more heart-wrenching dramas but Promising Young Woman should more than merit consideration.