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Review: A 'Promising Young Woman' hunts predators

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra in director Emerald Fennell’s "Promising Young Woman."

From the first time Carey Mulligan bit into a jelly doughnut after a night of vigilante justice in “Promising Young Woman,” I thought, “I cannot wait to see this again.”

Originally set to screen at South by Southwest, the wry, spiky, dazzling film from writer-director Emerald Fennell (of "Killing Eve" showrunning and "The Crown" Camilla Parker Bowles-ing) is now in theaters on Christmas Day. Like an ancient deity, “Promising Young Woman” appears to us mortals in many forms. It’s a pulpy revenge thriller, it’s a wickedly smart trauma story and it’s a rom-com coated in tar, that’s how pitch black it is. 

Hang tight with me on the Zeus-y biz for a sec. Myths live forever — it is their whole deal — and the archetypes that reached out of Fennell’s tremendous mind for our consideration are the Furies, those Greek goddesses of vengeance who punished bad men. In “Promising Young Woman,” they echo through eternity and appear before us as Carey Mulligan, dressed to kill and punishing predators with a knowing pop wink. In a world of patriarchal rot, with its Brock Turners and “Access Hollywood” tapes, you know fury is overdue.

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Mulligan plays Cassie, the erstwhile promising young woman of the title. (Sharp turn to camera: or is she?) Fennell plays much of the story close to the vest, but we know that Cassie’s status quo — living with her parents in a tacky coffin of comfort, taking up oxygen at her coffee shop job, never raising her eyes except to roll them — is not how things used to be. Something bad happened to her best friend years ago, something that diverted Cassie from a bright med school future to her current pursuit: stalking the men that prey on vulnerable women.

To do this, she’s become a chameleon, donning whatever guise is best suited to the reckoning at hand. She tallies her marks in a little black book. And when she's herself, Cassie is calm, clinical and utterly chilling, though you can still smell her rage and sorrow burning.

Carey Mulligan, left, menaces Christopher Mintz-Plasse (who deserves menacing) in "Promising Young Woman."

A potential exit from her righteous-but-grim path appears in the form of Ryan (Bo Burnham, sure to be a problematic crush), a former classmate whose kind, goofy charm provides a counterweight to the unrelentingly dismal examples of the Y chromosome in Cassie’s wake.

Like any good myth, the threads of fate are not so easily broken. Those bad men, though? They break quite satisfyingly.

Telling a topical story risks a bleed into preachiness or sanctimony, but Fennell grabs the aorta of the Me Too moment and taps it so precisely that her message is deadly clear. An exploitation film about exploitation. What’ll they think of next?

Mulligan’s the ideal messenger. As Cassie, she’s neither hero nor villain, just an immutable fact of nature in a pastel wig. Sometimes you cheer, as she entraps a would-be rapist; other times you shudder, as she feeds an inebriated woman into an elaborately set revenge trap. Doleful strings simmer, and wisps of smoke rise over Cassie like she’s Old Testament wrath personified, meting out judgment. 

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For all its shadows, “Promising Young Woman” runs headlong into the bright headlights of genre filmmaking. It’s highbrow schlock, winking at slasher cinema from its colorful opening title and then running headlong into the arms of pop kitsch with subversive joy. What other movie gives you McLovin from “Superbad” snorting coke, Seth Cohen from “The O.C.” as the “nice guy” your mother warns you about and the most giddy use of Paris Hilton’s pop smash “Stars Are Blind” ever committed to film?

And yes, the cast is as stacked as it’s starting to sound. In addition to Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Adam Brody, sit back and wait for Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Max Greenfield, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Alfred Molina … I mean, there’s a couple more, which seems like a testament to the script and to Fennell herself.

Director Emerald Fennell savvily uses pop culture in "Promising Young Woman," like in an irresistible scene between Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham and the Paris Hilton song "Stars Are Blind."

The plot’s twisty, and it keeps its beat pretty steadily, though the slow burn can get a little stifling while you wait. For all its 113 minutes, Fennell never shows her whole hand. It only ever bothered me when I wondered what exactly Cassie’s revenge schemes entailed — you’ll notice I’ve avoided confirming death and dismemberment. Ambiguity’s hard to argue against, though you might be tempted to want a little less fog. 

That said, the movie has no time for squirminess on the audience’s part. A particularly brutal final half-hour might test even the most open-minded viewer, but “Promising Young Woman” won’t let you look away in the end.

In that regard, it’s a perfect finale: wholly condemnatory of toxic masculinity, in all its ugly, violent privilege. Britton’s character, a criminally dismissive college official, tells Cassie at one point that sexual assault allegations can “ruin a young man’s life.” 

Every moment in the film seems to answer furiously, “Ruin? I’ll show you ruin.”

'Promising Young Woman'

Grade: A-

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge

Director: Emerald Fennell

Rated: R for sexual assault, language throughout, drug use, some sexual material and strong violence

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Watch: In theaters Friday