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Promising Young Woman
Writer-director Emerald Fennel’s directorial debut Promising Young Woman (2020) is a uniquely crafted rape-revenge thriller. It is a cinematic and cultural masterpiece. Its dark and bold take on a male-dominated world is sure to leave the audiences haunting with a new perspective on societal elements in the age of Me-Too. The 93rd Oscars honored this once-in-a-lifetime movie with the Best Original Screenplay award and nominations for Best Directing and Best Picture. Fennel remarkably executes her distinct vision into the story and carries us on a tumultuous ride through a roller-coaster of catharsis. She is a writer who knows the kind of story she tells and exactly knows how to. The genre-bending creative choices she makes serve perfectly to the conflict that shapes the character arcs.
The film rolls with Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a woman in her early thirties minus any career ambition and romantic interest. She spends her arduous days working at a café and living with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown). In short, she is the last person anyone would raise an eye on for any reason. But she regularly brawls with intense despair for her sister-like friend Nina, a rape victim from the med-school she voluntarily dropped out of. Her ‘ordinary’ schedule includes weekly visits to nightclubs where she pretends to have passed out with an alcoholic overdose. Things turn in Cassandra’s favor when clean-shaven “nice guys” with predatory instincts approach her with an assist back home only to take advantage of her vulnerability.
Pop culture has forever shown rapists as dark, gruesome men with scuzzy hair and a villainous tone- this faulty perception is widely inaccurate. A harsh reality supports this film's unique depiction of regular men being habitual predators.
But the scenes that follow thoroughly subvert our expectations of watching a film on sexual assault. As they attempt to pull off non-consensual advancements, Cassandra strips out of her façade and turns sober, rattling their consciences. We see how easily they turn into a deer in headlights and slip into their overtly apologetic self as she takes the upper hand. However, the inevitable agonizing peril in these nightly encounters remains inexplicable until the third act.
Mulligan’s responsive expressions as her character metamorphoses from drunken vulnerability to sober superiority are phenomenal to witness. Her artistic finesse shines throughout the film. Undoubtedly she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. There is a wonderful harmony with her acting and cinematographer Benjamin Kračun’s camera push-ins. The result is an intensely engaging drama.
When told through the eyes of a woman, a revenge thriller feels very different from traditional vengeance. Cassandra is not some kind of a quasi-vigilante on a killing spree of sexual predators. Upon a closer inspection, we realize that she encounters each of them personally with a philosophical mirror in their faces that portrays their derogatory intentions. Her mission is to abash such people for who they are. Cassandra also maintains a peculiar trophy-diary of their names, marked with numbers- and each time a Roman numeral appears on screen, it warns us to expect the unexpected.
But things get complicated when her former college batch-mate Ryan (Bo Burnham) returns in her life. He shows a keen sense of visceral romantic desire towards her and invokes a love interest in Cassandra’s heart. Here, the narrative starts to transcend genres. Suddenly it’s no more just a revenge tale. Ryan's presence in her life serves as a relieving spot for us amidst the tense storyline. The intimate scenes they share on-screen delight us with comical and playful banter between the two of them. A jovial Cassandra finds her love. She begins to sense what she has been missing all this while. For the first time in years, she feels genuinely content- and so do we. Fennel’s storytelling now subtly, yet clearly, hints at themes of forgiveness and a sense of moving on. She portrays a socially frustrated Cassandra struggling between her two lives- one she wants, with Ryan, and the other she has to, for Nina. We soon subconsciously realize that she has a regretfully obsessive compulsion with the latter.
But this emotional conflict inside her only blossoms into a closer relationship with him. It grants her a new opportunity to transform herself and a new direction in life. Our empathy for her draws us further into the movie owing to the dilemma of these two.
Bo Burnham's portrayal of his character is perhaps one of his career-best performances as a movie actor. He adroitly delivers every emotional beat that his dialogue has.
Just when things couldn’t get better, this brilliant script takes an unpredictable devious turn. We are left flabbergasted in shock from what we just saw. An impeccable plot twist churns the film into a completely different outlook. It catapults a devastated Cassandra into a harrowing nightmare of grief and anguish- compelling her to push herself to the extreme. The story once again lands back into its core genre, riveting our minds and culminating the theme with a tragically shocking yet profoundly satisfying end. Unlike a typical revenge thriller, Promising Young Woman concludes the core conflict on a profoundly non-conventional note.
The film's phenomenal soundtrack resonates with the two lives she leads. An orchestral version of Britney Spears' Toxic and Paris Hilton's Stars Are Blind flood our ears with symphonious sensations as we see her romantic side with Ryan. Anthony Willis’ bone-chillingly addictive soundtrack uncannily emphasizes the brooding concept that contextualizes the film.
Grimdark palettes and grey skies are the traditional visual expectations of a thriller film. But, surprisingly, Promising Young Woman is clad in a vibrant production design. A cheerful candy-pink joyfully splashes everything from Cassandra's clothes and her nail paint to the wall colors. It accurately signals at her estranged inner youth, unconsciously, in need of love.
We, as an audience, have grown to adore comedians over time. Their film roles always seem to fit a preconception in our minds. But Fennel nails her casting by choosing them to play the shady characters. It sets our expectations up and then wonderfully tones them down in harmony with the film's theme.
The film is an embarrassing reminder and a warning to those who tolerate misogynistic culture and watch in silence. We see Cassandra remarkably challenge other men and women (too) who hold authoritative positions in the society, but choose to turn a deaf ear to the victim's voice- often shaming them. These include the med-school Dean (Connie Britton), her former classmate (Alison Brie), and Nina's lawyer (Alfred Molina). It calls out how seriously they start worrying whenever the victim is either themselves or their loved ones. It highlights the ugly societal stereotype to grant men the "benefit of the doubt." Promising Young Woman also repeatedly touches the aspect of the unsettling young innocence often used by men to defend their misconduct.
Fennel’s script is not all grief and lament. It hints at possible hopeful redemption through honest confessions and forgiveness. That is what she paints Cassandra as she yearns for sympathy and love beneath her outrageously daring persona. She is an ordinary woman beleaguered by an egregious past.
The rape-revenge storyline is not new in cinema. Films like I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and The Last House on the Left (1972) disturbingly depicted gruesome sexual assault. But this one does not even utter the word 'rape.' The result is a very appropriate and interestingly unique take on this dark subject matter.
Films like these exhibit the monumental change that Hollywood underwent, in the wake of the Me-Too movement, in the last few years. It poignantly glances at Superbad (2007), Animal House (1978), and Sixteen Candles (1984) that bizarrely caricatured drunken sexual assault as a hilarious trope and got away with it. The media's long-standing 'seduction culture' has inspired Fennel's vision for this project. There is also a subtle and deliberate irony in the casting of Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who also starred in Superbad.
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