By Josh Silva
An all-too-familiar scene: the slimiest, club-dwelling “nice guy” tries to take advantage of a drunk woman, bringing her to his place while she can barely walk. But just as the skin-crawling dread over the anticipated event reaches its climax, the tables turn; the woman catches the rapist off-guard, revealing that she was faking intoxication. This woman is Cassie (Carrie Mulligan), the protagonist of Emerald Farrell’s directorial debut Promising Young Woman, and such a scenario is her nightly hobby.
This hobby precedes the main plot, Cassie’s elaborate revenge scheme concocted upon finding out that the man who raped her best friend in medical school (an event which implicitly drove the friend to suicide) is now getting married. Through elaborate manipulation, she turns the tables on all parties involved in the death, and in the process gives them a taste of how she and her friend may have felt.
In this revenge tale, the main goal is for the protagonist, presumably the director, and ideally the audience, to achieve catharsis. As Quentin Tarantino has often demonstrated, film can reach a catharsis that history has robbed people of. But while a fictional character exacting retribution on a slave owner, Nazi, rapist, or any historically unpunished tormentor has its momentary thrills, it being the sum of a film’s emotions leaves a hollow feeling once the credits roll. Tarantino, after exhausting historical revisionism’s possibilities, realized these limitations in his most recent film, counteracting violent catharsis with a dose of melancholic reality for a change. Unfortunately, though Promising Young Woman flirts with breaking through its textureless pop facade, it sticks mostly to one-dimensional revanchist fantasy. The film is a series of these fantasies, almost all of which go effortlessly according to plan. Not only that, Cassie takes these opportunities to smugly quip and monologue with as much rehearsed ease as a Marvel villain — or hero. It’s as if she knew every line before the other characters spoke them. In one scene, a man on Cassie’s hitlist pleads to her: “it’s every man’s worst nightmare, getting accused of [sexual assault],” to which Cassie slyly retorts, “Did you ever wonder what a woman’s worst nightmare is?” Lines like these ring true on their own, but their blunt didacticism dissolves all tension until it’s not one character saying the line to another, but the director saying it to an audience that, like Cassie, already knows these lines. What could be empowering ends up preaching to the choir with the type of dialogue that lends itself to social media screenshots.
This episodic and repetitive routine is balanced by a differently but equally inauthentic romantic subplot concerning Cassie and her old college classmate, Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham). Their unfunny banter is as ironically distant as Cassie’s one-liners, again like an R-rated Marvel movie about millennials. The subplot drifts by so casually that when it inevitably ends, it leaves Cassie virtually unchanged. The facade refuses to be cracked.
It’s possible that her shatterproof persona is indicative of her difficulty processing trauma. The film hints at this, especially towards the end, only to withdraw into further simplicity as we learn that it was merely another facet of her plan.
None of this is bolstered by the shot compositions. They have the stagnant quality of many recent anamorphic-lensed indies like Under the Silver Lake, which could be considered this movie’s deviant male counterpart. But even that had far more dynamic framing and kinetic energy than the disposable compositions of this film. Most scenes never deviate from the indifferent shot-reverse-shot model, and when an interesting composition weasels its way in, it has just as little purpose as the others. Equally inert is the staging and physical presences of the actors. Mulligan disappears into her role quite naturally, centering herself in a rotating parade of underwhelming and unconvincing supporting roles. Previously compelling talents like Alison Brie and Alfred Molina give stiff performances, constrained by the shoddiness of the directing and the single dimension of their characters.
As hard as it sounds to strip such a subject matter of its authenticity, this film certainly tries. While I admire its goal to deliver a catharsis that most women are denied in real life, it undermines that ambition at every turn by reducing itself into a slick trifle.