Promising Young Woman drapes itself in candy-coated colors, almost calling The Grand Budapest Hotel to mind. Behind the vibrant imagery is something much darker, though. As deceiving as its colorful aesthetic is, writer/director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature is indeed like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’re likely expecting a revenge thriller with a quirky edge. Promising Young Woman delivers just that, but its recipe is made up of several unique ingredients. One of those ingredients is Carey Mulligan, who has never been more invigorating to watch.
Mulligan owns the screen as Cassie, a young woman who can be regularly found at bars, too tipsy to even stand up on her own. Cassie is stone-cold sober, however. It’s all an act to lure out men looking to take advantage of women. Then just as they prepare to unbutton her shirt, Cassie shows her true colors. Cassie’s motivations are gradually made clear as she begins to target several individuals connected to a personal tragedy. What isn’t clear is where Cassie is willing to draw the line.
Promising Young Woman wisely doesn’t reveal upfront how far Cassie is willing to go or how far she’s already gone. Fennell understands the power of suggestion, knowing just when to end a scene. Seeing Cassie keep tally in a notebook is arguably more unnerving than seeing what happened to one of her gentlemen callers. When Fennell does begin to pull back the curtain, we still rarely know what Cassie will do next. There’s a particularly surprising scene between Cassie and Alfred Molina. Even Cassie seems surprised by the outcome, leaving us to wonder if she’s truly in control or not.
Cassie only becomes harder to read as she grows closer to an adorkable doctor named Ryan (Bo Burnham). Unlike the guys she picks up, Ryan doesn’t pressure Cassie into having sex and seems genuinely invested in her well-being. Yet, she can’t help but second guess the relationship. While there is a revelation regarding Ryan, it doesn’t go in the direction you might assume. Without giving anything away, it further demonstrates how layered the #MeToo movement is.
Numerous movies have already been made in response to #MeToo, but few have tackled consent, abuse, or the lack of bystander intervention with a more distinctive voice. Fennell served as the showrunner on the second season of Killing Eve, which is evident watching Promising Young Woman. Cassie is somewhere between Villanelle and Eve. Like Villanelle, Cassie is a woman of many different faces, but she’s not a straight-up psychopath. Like Eve, Cassie has a twisted side, but we’re not sure if she’ll fully embrace it. We’re given our answer in the final act, which manages to subvert expectations while also leaving us on an immensely satisfying note. I won’t dare give away what happened, but let’s just say that it’s the cherry on the sundae, or in this case, the lipstick kiss on the mirror.