Emerald Fennell directs Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham and Laverne Cox in this indie comedy thriller where a depressed college drop-out spends her nights in clubs posing as a drunk, vulnerable girl so she can get men to take her home and teach them a lesson in consent.
The Danish Girl or Philadelphia or Paul Haggis’ Crash. There are “awards hype movies” that feel like they address thorny issues head on and expand the cinematic dialogue in their moment but then a mere few months later are swept aside as being hollow and over simplified distasteful broadsides. I get the feeling in the coming year that current Oscar hot potato Promising Young Woman will join this ignominious little group. Unlike say, In the Heat of the Night or Victim, we won’t be able to eventually circle back and appreciate the entertainment value and technical proficiency these oh so of their moment time capsules have. Because there isn’t much more to them than their topicality. Some issues movies are burst by the subject being too unwieldy to boil down into a two hour film, others are stunted by tone deaf studio concerns. The creations of people who have to give voice to a suffering they have not experienced or market a new way of thinking to a mainstream audience who might not organically question the societal values that need rethinking.
Promising Young Woman is such a reduction – dealing with a controversial and currently in vogue dialogue in a way that absorbs a lot of the buzz phrases and key incidents on the conversations of rape, male privilege, objectification, gender justice and, most compellingly, consent… but then never really ringing true or having fun or exploring any particularly telling nuance. It is Sexual Assault: The Movie, made for an obsessed “fan base” of this subject in the same way Transformers was made for little boys of all ages who care more for a big screen showcase of toys that can be robots and cars than universally enjoyable cinema. Much like the Michael Bay franchise has struggled to convert anyone who never played with an Optimus Prime, I doubt Emerald Fennell’s debut will do much for people outside a particular woke echo chamber. Which is a shame as nobody has yet to figure out a way to deliver the message of explicit consent to young men… and that does need to happen somehow.
Emerald Fennell’s debut isn’t a film made to change hearts and minds but merely to serve up familiar content to those feminists already on board with its message. It swims in the same pool as I May Destroy You or The Assistant or The Morning Show. But not their deep end. We get joking opening shots of tubby, bland men dancing in a way that lampoons the male gaze. We get elaborately rigged situations where everyone but the victim of sexual assault can be made immorally complicit in all sexual assaults. We are shovelled moments of victorious retaliation that have little real world consequence. Are we witnessing a world where all men will claim dominion of an incapacitated woman’s body? Or where a six foot man will not retaliate if slender petite girl enters his house under false pretences or smashes his car with a metal pole or blackmails him after he forms an emotional vulnerability with her? That’s no moral judgement on the film in those questions. I’m just wondering aloud if the impotent passivity that Mulligan’s Cassie experiences when she attacks, destroys and exposes people rings true with Fennell’s vision of masculinity where every male will rape and condone rape given the right circumstances. Are us lads all mindless predators or all defenceless cucks? What does this say of the men the creatives have routinely experienced? Are they all frat boys and beta soy sensitives? I don’t actually need working class, or non Americans, those uninterested in casual sex to be better represented here but maybe its a little telling that Fennell only operates with three types of man; upper middle class attractive but dangerous, upper middle class needy but unheroic, or Daddy (upper middle class).
There’s no “poor me” to this. The ‘girls’ movie’ did not stub my fragile male toe. Men have been shown in every light in cinema from Black Panther to Ratzo Rizzo, from Atticus Finch to Hannibal Lecter. I think we can survive being boiled down to a few clunky stereotypes for a story or two. Here however humanity, both genders, is diluted to the point of view of someone who has let a tragedy define their life. It is too glib and too sophomoric a text to really try and speak to the pain that victims of rape go through trying to get on with their lives. The movie it reminds me of most is the equally distasteful and shallow Joker. Todd Phillip’s aped early Scorsese to conjure up a world of insensitivity, paranoia and callousness. What Promising Young Woman lacks in scale and big screen chaos it makes up for in at least having a visual sense of its own… or at the very least inspired by less overriding sources. Yet I couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that a mentally unstable individual is being treated as anti-hero onscreen with no lurid exploitation value and a rather juvenile sense of validity. Not a problem in pulp or comedy or horror… but again this has been sold to us as a modern dramatic masterpiece, in the wake of far more sophisticated peers.
There is good here. Mulligan is impressive in the scenes where she turns the tables on the establishment figures. Watching her switch and gain the upper hand in the bedroom, offices and restaurants of the complicit showcases some tight acting and great scripting. An early shot where she stares down some cat callers, red sauce dripping from her hand and the power shifting firmly to her side of the street almost won me over. The reclamation of pop music works perfectly. The support cast is stellar (although Alison Brie should be front and centre in projects like this – she’s far better than the support ghetto).
As a movie there were parts I liked and parts I struggled not to hate, yet nothing I truly loved. It is frustrating to watch such a cause célèbre and feel ‘meh’ through so much of it. If I was hooked up to a heart monitor the reading would barely move. Every time I got ready to either relax into a quirky thriller or girded myself to feel uncomfortable as a man in the firing line, the movie seemed to reset. It felt like a calling card that never gains momentum beyond its hook and candy colour production design. It is just a flashy debut. Maybe the raves and nominations in a unique year for cinematic releases have overburdened a little movie that really only should have been in contention for acting noms?
Promising Young Woman has a sickly sweet palette that evokes teen classics like Heathers or Clueless but lacks either of those simpler less ambitious satires’ self-awareness. They are heightened fantasises, this wears the look of artificiality but wants to be taken as real world polemic. It has an edge that calls back to scrappier indie movies like The Last Supper or Very Bad Things… yet those movies were smart enough to also bite back at the seemingly progressive values of its protagonists and the audience they mirrored. You never get an inkling that we are not supposed to venerate and celebrate a woman who has allowed her life to be consumed and defined by rape. At no point do Mulligan or Fennell allow even a hint that the lives Cassie is upturning in her wake are anything more than long due justice coming home to roost. And then because this is a film about a calculating vigilante who must always have the moral upper hand we get no pleasing transgressive violence that say the unhinged Travis Bickle delivers in Taxi Driver or phoenix from the flame Jennifer unleashes in the far superior, tellingly less arthouse and broadsheet friendly, Revenge. In fact anyone who has seen enough thrillers and TV shows will notice just how much we are not being shown in the first act and realise very early it will be revealed just how toothless and unlikely Cassie’s grand plan is in comparison to what we are promised in the marketing materials.
A quick note on Promising Young Woman’s controversial ending. You should definitely look away now if you are yet to see it. It HAD me for a few minutes. I thought an incredibly brave choice had been made, one that rang true to the fact here was a woman putting herself in the way of harm with a sociopathic obsession. Fennell should be lauded for holding on that shocking act of violence in the story’s penultimate moments. It opened up questions of self defence and even had a neat gender reversed scene where a transgressor is comforted in the way all rape victims might be… but then the movie retracts its killer blow with an improbable twist. Like all empty issues movies it wants the tragedy AND the happy ending, justice in an unjust society. One negates the other. We swerve from a risky but genuinely affecting conclusion to a rote coup de grâce. And that’s maybe what holds Promising Young Woman back from living up to its promise, it was in such a rush to be timely and on trend it isn’t assured enough of itself to reward us with full fat shock finale. This has not been tonally thought through. It feels like a rough draft of a far more exciting, combative and prescient movie. If it were just a subversive bubblegum thriller it wouldn’t matter. But now it has been released and marketed and praised as a key text in a very didactic debate, it really struggles to be consistent. As either entertainment, satire or essay.
Really, I haven’t covered them on here as they are TV but I wholeheartedly endorse I May Destroy You or The Morning Show for tackling this subject matter with far more room and maturity and verve. Promising Young Woman is 2021’s Rorschach Test of a movie as much for its fumbles and scrappiness. I wish I fell on either side. Wish I detested it. Wish even more that I could sing its praises. Yet ultimately it is average, misguided and more hard work than its worth. Promising… but doesn’t deliver.
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