Promising Darkly Comedic Thriller
Sexual abuse is no joke. In American during 2019, it’s reported that 652,676 women were raped – and that’s just the ones who reported what happened. Even more sobering perhaps is the fact 40% of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse (according to Statista). How then, does one translate these ideas across to the big screen in a way that still manages to entertain the masses without losing the harsh reality of abuse? Step forward Promising Young Woman.
At its core, this movie takes a whole medley of different influences, throws them at the proverbial wall and looks on eagerly to see what sticks. The result is something that’s both artistic and inspiring, as well as tonally discordant and – at its worst – a little tone deaf. That’s before mentioning the polarizing ending and light dollops of humour that really don’t work as well as they should. But let’s backtrack and see what we’re dealing with here first.
Promising Young Woman opens with an intriguing opening scene that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Within the opening 3 or 4 minutes we get a glimpse of the neon-lit club scene, the bouncy pop music that’s intentionally at-odds with the heavy subject material, and understand what our main protagonist, Cassie, is up to.
She spends her nights entrapping different men; a drunken anglerfish lying in wait with a pulsating neon-pink filament as drunken hipsters, nerds and general weirdos see Cassie as an “easy score.” Instead of chomping down on her prey, she waits for these men take her back to their apartments, turning on a dime and forcing them to admit their shame and insecurities until they submit. It’s a powerful mantra, one that sees Cassie constantly tallying off numbers in her little notebook. No matter how many victims she ensnares, it’s never enough to fill the void in her heart.
You see, the real end-game here revolves around Cassie’s best friend Nina. We’re not told right away what’s happened but something awful happened to her, something so bad that it spurs Cassie on to get revenge. As the film enters its five different acts, cleverly signified by tally marks, the tone changes to reflect Cassie’s mood. What begins as a B-movie thriller turns into an unintentional romcom when Cassie’s childhood friend Ryan enters the scene.
From here, the film takes on a slightly different dimension, and at times sags a bit too much during its uneventful middle act. In fact, the 40 minutes or so in the middle of this drags on too long, with a suitably cringey dance number in a pharmacy for good measure. Thankfully, the final 20 minutes bring everything right back down to Earth again, closing up with a gut-punch of an ending. That gut punch will either hit hard or swing and miss its target completely – there really is no middle ground here.
The visual design of the movie is equally as polarizing, see-sawing between a work of genius or a complete tonal disaster. At times, the aesthetic feels a bit too comic-book-y for the subject matter, with Cassie’s colourful wig and nurse’s outfit feeling like it’s been ripped right out of Harley Quinn’s playbook. Despite bearing some similarities to Birds Of Prey, Promising Young Woman is thankfully miles better than DC’s tonally conflicted chick-flick.
Here, the tonal shifts at least feel like they serve a purpose. Trauma and grief are messy, unpredictable emotions. You can’t control how you’ll react at any given time, and although there are no outright fits of giggling or laugh out loud hoots, the funniest scenes are those within that aforementioned second act where Cassie and Ryan share the screen together.
Carey Mulligan will undoubtedly draw the plaudits here though and her performance right the way through this movie is perfectly on-point. Her meeting with the university dean is arguably the highlight, with a suffocating intensity in the air during the moments they spent together. By contrast, seeing Cassie open up and crack a smile with Ryan, helps to add some depth to a character who, for large stretches of the picture, is actually quite hard to warm to.
To summarize, Promising Young Woman is a sobering movie about grief and trauma, propped up by a heady mix of bright visuals, aesthetic flair and a couple of incredibly intense segments. While the movie isn’t quite as tightly woven as it could be, jumping between tones a little brashly, there’s a solid movie here that manages to imaginatively spin a difficult topic into an easy to watch thriller.