A hard candy with a sour center, “The Promising Young Woman” turns sociopathy into style and trauma into a joke. Embodying both, Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), 30, an abandoned medical school who still lives with her worried parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), is a weekday worker and a weekend hunter. Her prey is two-legged but one-minded: men who equate a woman’s intoxication with consent.
A film about the long tail of a sexual assault (elaborate in detail, that would be unfair), this first feature of Emerald Fennell opens at the club, and the camera moves across the tight bottoms of dizzying businessmen before landing on Cassandra. Throwing herself into the cabin, smeared and seemingly lost, she is a treat that one man (played by Adam Brody) cannot resist. Gallantly offering her home, he drove smoothly to his apartment. When Cassandra discovers his stony cold sobriety, he has already taken off her underwear and moved in for the result.
The following footage shows her going home, barefoot and cheerfully chewing a hot dog while the cover of the film “Rain of Rain” fills the soundtrack. Is there a red color on her hand – blood or ketchup? Later, she records the encounter in a thick notebook filled with red and black waists. What the colors represent is, like too many aspects of the wild amazing action, inexplicable. Instead, we follow Cassandra as she continues her dangerous crawling patrol, seemingly armed with nothing more deadly than a waving finger and a withering gaze.
A jumbled mix of black comedy, a vengeful thriller and a feminist lecture, “The Promising Young Woman” all too often strays from its potentially striking setting. With a screenplay also written by Fennell, the film is still reluctant to follow its own rage. Pop-up colors and hyper-feminized design illuminate scenes of unusually static craftsmanship, the nonsense of Cassandra’s long-running crusade – how many predator construction sites can there be in her suburbs? – undermining the moral weight of his problems.
The introduction of Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former schoolmate who turned into a pediatric surgeon, sends the film into the territory of romantic comedy, and Cassandra into a brief flirtation with normalcy. But when Ryan discovers new information about old acquaintances, her routine of insults and embarrassment extends to women who have downplayed a long-ago crime. Yet the film, like Cassandra’s life, feels formless and not nearly as nervous as she thinks it is: a protracted trick that fails to fill too many gaps.
Buried under blue curls and bangs of shepherds, Mulligan gives depth and sensitivity to a character who is little more than a vengeful doll. Supporting the performances of Laverne Cox, as Cassandra’s Sardinian boss, and Alison Brie, as former school friends, add speed and texture to a film that is too inconsistent to sell the damage at its core. In order to nail the stakes, “The Promising Young Woman” needs at least one scene in which a man responds credibly to Cassandra’s scams: Not all future bullies start when they refuse. And while red notes in her diary may indicate violent outcomes, the allusion is too vague to be able to register.
There is, however, no hesitation about the end of the film – or, more precisely, the penultimate scene. Viewed in the context of the story of the male appearance, it might seem catastrophic; but for me it was the most authentic moment in the film and the strongest indicator of Fennell’s talent for digging into the character’s darkest desires. The “Promising Young Woman” is not an imagination of revenge as much as a sad story of twisted grief and blazing rage: Cassandra may despise her poor victims, but she disgusts herself the most.
A promising young woman
Rated R for horrible behavior and poor language. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. In theaters. Please refer to the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies in theaters.