One of the starkest sociopolitical developments of recent years has been the rebuttal of the case for subtlety and moderation as legitimate, effective methods of activism. Whether in the radical acts of Extinction Rebellion or the uncompromising messages set forth by the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, the socially progressive strategy today is one of bold steps and bolder statements. As years of gentle nudging and mild amelioration resulted in little-to-no actual improvement for marginalized people, leading to dramatic tipping points in today’s hyper-polarized society, those marginalized people decided to do away with subtlety and state their case plainly, clearly, loudly and unapologetically.

Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman plants its flag at the very heart of this cultural disposition, announcing itself with uncompromising force, setting forth its message and its purpose with direct, even aggressive clarity. Fennell strips her vision of the modern world down to its core elements, polishing them up so that her audience won’t miss a single suggestion or notion. It’s a film almost totally devoid of subtlety but not of nuance. Rather, it’s a film informed by intelligent, educated understanding of the topics it covers. It just doesn’t seek to meekly, artfully disguise its intelligence, instead throwing it up on the screen for all to see. Fennell doesn’t want even one viewer to miss the points she’s making – after all, it’s only through this unsubtle, unapologetic approach that she stands to catch anyone’s attention. As Hannah Arendt once put it: “Violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.”

Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a young woman nevertheless not quite young enough to make her unusual lifestyle go unscrutinised. She works in a coffee shop, lives with her parents and spends most nights seemingly getting extremely drunk at local clubs and bars… except only seemingly. Cassie’s ploy is to feign drunkenness to attract the most predatory potential dates, the ones whose advantage they decide to take over her will turn into their disadvantage once they find themselves alone with her. She’s exploiting the exploiters as retribution for a trauma caused to her seven years ago when she was, as the title states, a promising young woman, studying in medical school with a group of good friends and an apparently happy life.

Cassie’s methods of securing retribution are crude, morally questionable and highly dangerous; they ratchet up when she meets Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate from medical college whose close contact with their former cohorts allows Cassie access to the very people responsible for her trauma and who also finds a surprising route through her rock-hard exterior to the wounded soul underneath. The tenderness they share in their blossoming romance is offset by the increasing callousness of Cassie’s actions, though rather than branching ever further apart, these conflicting character modes actually entwine, culminating in a moral dilemma that our antiheroine resolves, naturally, in the bluntest, most unsubtle fashion conceivable.

Millennial and Gen Z viewers will likely find themselves identifying with Cassie, not necessarily due to her personal circumstances but due to her furious indignation. She gets away with her extreme behaviour simply because those she targets either were planning to get away with their behaviour or already have. Her experience with the moderate route toward securing justice through the existing channels has taught her that the only way to cut the poison out of society is to pull the poisoned plants out roots and all. Fennell shows us a world of stock elements and simple choices, right down to Michael Perry’s graphic production design and ace music supervisor Susan Jacobs’ flashy pop soundtrack cuts.

It’s here that Promising Young Woman is most persuasive as an artistic statement. It’s utterly brazen to the point of near-fantastical simplicity. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t really how anybody acts or how anybody lives – she’s not interested in depicting material reality but instead in depicting experiential reality. Yet it’s also here that her shortcomings are manifest. Cassie’s reality may be a distinctly off-kilter, blinkered one but Fennell’s clearly is not, yet she struggles with introducing any potentially extraneous elements in a way that feels cohesive with the central, express function of her narrative. Alfred Molina’s hysterically repentant defence lawyer comes across as contrived and implausible, Laverne Cox’s coffee shop employee exists as, essentially, a slightly more developed version of the sassy black friend (and Cox is responsible for all the fleshing out, not Fennell), while a purportedly shocking twist is, in fact, so predictable it’d have been quite the disappointment had it not happened. It’s also unveiled in the film’s only wholly botched scene, in which neither Fennell nor Mulligan show the kind of expert control over tone and emotion that they exhibit elsewhere.

Yet with its style and substance both set slightly askew, Promising Young Woman is consistently able to transcend its flaws, which are only ever momentary in effect. Plus, for every wrong turn Fennell makes, she makes at least twice as many unexpected right turns, unafraid to let her film veer bravely into new, unexplored territories. She’s taking bold steps and making bolder statements, ably backed up by Mulligan in yet another exquisitely detailed, wholly authentic performance in yet another wildly different role. Subtlety be damned – this is a plain, clear, loud and unapologetic clarion call against moderation. The marginalized must rise up, stand firm and start exploiting the exploiters if they’re ever to secure justice. If there ever were a film that not only propagated that statement but also lived and embodied it, it’s Promising Young Woman.

Completely uncompromising in its core objectives, though misjudged in a few key areas, this is a brilliantly provocative directorial debut for Emerald Fennell and another magnificent showcase for Carey Mulligan.
68 %
A Promise Fulfilled
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