Genre cinema is a place to be provocative, not fair. Morality informs its core, although it is blown to wild proportions so the audience has no choice but to reckon with it. Promising Young Woman, the new black comedy from longtime actor/writer Emerald Fennell, is like that. It is a scathing critique of rape culture, seen through the warped prism of its secondary victims. There is a flinty approach to the material, one that never lets any of the characters off the hook, except Fennell presents this in a hollow way. The young woman in question is less of a character and more of an idea, which is not enough to sustain too many verses of the same song.
When we meet Cassie (Carey Mulligan), she seems drunk at a nightclub. Adam Brody plays the loser who offers to take her home, except a series of predictable things happen instead: he takes her to his place, and tries to rape her. We learn this is all part of Cassie’s elaborate experiment. She is not actually drunk, and instead uses herself as bait to reveal the depths of mediocre men.
As these experiments grow more dangerous and elaborate, we see more of her tedious home life. A former medical student who works in a coffee shop, Cassie leads an otherwise boring life, at least until her former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) turns up. He is charming and not creepy, so Cassie lets down her defenses and tries for something better. It all goes swimmingly, until a dark secret makes her realize that vengeance is the only recourse she has left.
Fennell fills the frame with visual irony. She uses pink and mauve as a repeated color, standing in stark contrast with the dark provocations that define many scenes. Parts of Promising Young Woman are like a slasher film in reverse: we follow along the “monster,” as she stalks one victim after another. It is a unique storytelling technique, except an unintentional flaw is the men have more nuance than Cassie. She is always pretending, a cypher on which we project our outrage. Fennell does not really supply her a back story – there are multiple references to her lack of ambition and interests – and that lack of specificity leads to a sympathy drain.
Her personal life notwithstanding, this is still a scathing indictment of a culture that has not evolved after #MeToo. There is a kernel of nasty truth every time Cassie sets a trap for the men in her sphere, and Fennell’s masterstroke is that Cassie always gives them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they will do the right thing, and not act like a reprehensible douchebag. Ultimately they confirm her biases again and again, then this cycle is deepened when a Cassie starts to dig into her past. This exposes the complicity in hookup culture, leading toward a tense climax, other women who tolerate bad behavior, and the lawyers who exploit it for financial gain. This unfolds as a series of one-off negotiations/fights, but only Alfred Molina leaves an impression as a man who realizes genuine comeuppance is the only currency in matters of right and wrong.
Promising Young Woman takes a lot of nerve. That nerve is in Mulligan’s uncompromising performance, and it can be found in the supporting actors who torch the “Not All Men” refrain. That nerve is also in Fennell’s script and direction, since it walks a precarious moral tight rope and knows just how the characters should fall off it. Unfortunately, an abundance of nerve does not translate to strong storytelling. Fennell could have gotten away with a protagonist vacuum if her film followed the genre tradition of a lean runtime. Instead, there is a padded out feeling that tilts toward monotony. Promising Young Woman is good trash striving for something more respectable, and does not realize good trash can also have something to say.