‘PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN’ review: Carey Mulligan is ferocious in auspicious revenge flick


Courtney Howard // Film Critic


Rated R, 113 minutes

Directed by: Emerald Fennell

Starring: Carey MulliganBo BurnhamLaverne Cox, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina, Chris Lowell, Max Greenfield, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge

Filmmaker Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN will undoubtedly be the most divisive and provocative movie of the year. Her feature-length directorial debut centering on a young lady who takes revenge after suffering an impactful loss speaks directly to a woman’s wasted potential when violated, commuting the trauma and channeling it into incisive fury. Her vision is uncompromising, serving its acidic venom in a fine crystal champagne coupe. Coupled with Carey Mulligan’s thoroughly ferocious and fearless performance, this is a must-see.

30-year-old Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is a gorgeous woman – one who uses her looks to purposely ensnare men in a trap. She’s the predator and they’re the prey in a nightly routine as she goes to clubs, feigning drunken stupors in order to get men alone to see if they take advantage of her. She doesn’t yield any weaponry, yet she slices through the facade of their “nice guy” act, splitting it open and seizing their guts. Metaphorically, of course. There’s no gore. Her reverse power play works, snatching control when they’re vulnerable. It’s clear she’s harboring deep-seated, unvarnished rage against the machine that’s allowed rape culture to flourish. Yet the specific motivations as to why she’s doing this are slowly revealed.

By day, however, she’s caught in a state of arrested adolescence, living at home with her parents (played by Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) despite her advancing age, and working as a barista in a quiet coffee shop run by her lone girlfriend, Gail (Laverne Cox). Years prior, she abruptly quit medical school after a tragic event occurred and has since taken up the mantle of vengeance. However, her purpose-driven life doesn’t come fully into focus until an old college acquaintance, Ryan (Bo Burnham), makes a reappearance in her life. He’s smitten with her, going so far as to drink the coffee he saw her spit into. Though he acts as a potential romantic saving force, he inadvertently and unknowingly brings up figures from her past – former classmates and administrative authorities – who reignite her fiery quest to deliver her own patented brand of unflinching justice.

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit : Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features

Fennell’s framing plays a crucial part in contextualizing how Cassie not only sees the world, but how she views her targets. There’s a distinct, balanced symmetry she utilizes in conjunction with her characters’ placement within the frame as if to establish visually that everything falls into line with Cassie’s plan. Her parents, her boss, her paramour, and her psychological punching bags are all aligned in ways that augment the narrative context. Once these major players’ harmful or harmless motivations and influence on her vengeful quest materialize, their location in the frame is destabilized, scattered from the middle ground into the corners. Cassie’s self-imposed martyrdom casts her in the power position of the center of the frame, composed and controlled, occasionally allowing others to inhabit that portion with her offering redemption rather than punishment. Only once they reveal themselves, they’re jettisoned to opposite corners. 

The subtle tenets of color psychology also come into play, demonstrated through this film’s impeccable production and art design. Michael Perry, Liz Kloczkowski and Rae Deslich maximize shading Cassie’s world in a candy-coated sheen. Settings and decor are grounded in a blue color palette, enhanced with a slash of red for foreshadowing purposes. They’ve also punctuated Cassie’s landscape with religious iconography (like the saint card on her nightstand emphasizing her dedication to a burning crusade). Nancy Steiner’s costume designs further this, cloaking “nice guys” in soothing blues, disguising their ulterior motives. Cassie is clad in black, whites and sporadic reds when she’s feeling thorny. Hair and makeup bolster the aesthetics. Cassie’s claws are pastel Easter egg colors, echoed in her wig and occasional extensions streaked with the same Manic Panic hair dye colors. Her Rapunzel-esque, long, luscious locks make her appear like a beckoning princess begging for rescue. But it’s a cynical  underlying commentary that a once-girly, bubblegum pop playground can turn dangerous.

Of course there are a few preposterous, “only in the movies” style moments. That doesn’t mean they’re not cathartic, but they’re part of the artifice nonetheless. If we were all as beautiful as Mulligan, we too could probably wail on an aggro-dude’s truck with a tire iron to exorcise our anger without fear of retribution. There’s a hefty repurposing of Tyler Durden’s moralistic, self-righteous pontificating with Cassie’s scares on the everyman – disrupting the smoke-and-mirrors “nice guy” act, as represented through her interactions with non-descript nightclub patrons played by Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Sam Richardson. Instead of keeping their driver’s licenses, she journals, jotting down their first names and scratching marks in a small notebook. The impact of these scenes will vary and it might prove triggering for those who’ve been caught in similar situations. Plus, it’s awfully convenient her marks don’t get violent – well, until they do.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN will be to men now what FATAL ATTRACTION was to them in the 80’s. Except here, no one is let off the hook. While there is only slight insight into the psyche of a regular woman with an extraordinary mind unlocked by trauma and tragedy, this hyper-stylized, uncanny revenge flick gives power and voice to the unrelenting angst women face when dealing with very real anxieties.

Grade: 4 out of 5

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN opens in theaters on December 25.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.