I love a good revenge fantasy. When done properly, it can produce righteous rage at the issue at hand, pulse-pounding thrills as the wish fulfillment is choreographed, and a sense of catharsis through the voyeuristic lens of the execution. When done poorly, it can simply come off as gratuitous. More often than not, Emerald Fennell (showrunner of Killing Eve), through Promising Young Woman, lands on the right side of this equation, penning an overall clever script and demonstrating a deft directorial touch in her debut. This is a film on the whole to be lauded for a lot of reasons, but it’s far from perfect, and occasionally drifts into cynical nihilism when it comes tantalizingly close to being truly great.
First and foremost, Carey Mulligan absolutely earns the praise she’s gotten in the lead role. As Cassie, she’s a fully-developed, motivated, whip smart character. As she sardonically works at a coffee shop with her boss, Gail (Laverne Cox), she has the comic delivery and independent agency of some of the best work-a-day characters in modern film. Honestly I got a Dante and Randal vibe from their interplay at times. Her home life, where her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) passive-aggressively try to get her to live a “normal” life adds dimension and humanizes her admirably.
And all that is before you consider the meat of the role, as an avenging angel against toxic masculinity. Dropping out of medical school after her best friend Nina was raped, Cassie spends her weekends entrapping men at bars and nightclubs by pretending to be drunk to the point of incapacitation, luring in self-professed “nice guys” who nonetheless try to take advantage of her. She keeps a notebook of names and hash marks, her own miniature form of bedpost notches, with pages upon pages noting her streak of catching rapacious men in the act. When Mulligan intentionally dolls herself up in sexy outfits and baits her hook by appearing to pass out, it’s just a matter of time, a waiting game to see who will come to her “rescue,” offer to take her home, and then advance on her without consent before she reveals the ruse. The stunned looks on her marks’ faces is priceless, and there’s a manic glee for the audience, be they women who’ve either seen or experienced this threat, or guys like me who hate being lumped in with these predators because we were taught to actually BE nice rather than just say it.
One day, she meets one of her former classmates, Ryan (Bo Burnham), and the two begin an awkward yet somewhat cute romance. Their connection also drives Cassie to go after her biggest possible fish, the man who actually destroyed her friend’s life at a college house party seven years prior. Soon, Cassie’s doing a balancing act between her legitimate feelings for Ryan and her quest for vengeance against the parade of perpetrators in the assault. Part of what makes her performance so strong is this ability to just turn the tenacious rage on and off at a moment’s notice. When she’s cracking jokes, she’s funny. When she’s hurt, you feel it. When she turns on her hunter instincts and shows that she’s not drunk, it’s deliciously scary.
Subtlety is very much NOT on the menu in this film, and on its face, that’s okay. Fennell is shining a spotlight on a very serious issue, and it’s not one to treat subtly. We’re not trying to shuffle things off to the side or hide them in plain sight. What the film does need, however, is nuance, the ability to treat something complex with a degree of delicacy. And this is what the film lacks, and I think it suffers a bit because of it.
Here’s how the difference plays out in the film. The lack of subtlety really works in the case of two people who either covered up or downplayed Nina’s case. Alison Brie plays a classmate who simply didn’t believe Nina’s story because Nina was a party girl who apparently slept around, and Connie Britton is the Dean of the school who dismissed Nina’s allegations due to lack of evidence and a desire to not “ruin” the life of the attacker (Chris Lowell). Slut shaming and excuse making. Not subtle. We’ve seen it all before, especially recently in cases like Brock Turner and Brett Kavanaugh. In the matters of both of these women, Cassie’s revenge is not only unsubtle, but flat out poetic justice, a way for them both to experience the terror of being a sexual assault victim without ever being attacked. It’s fucking brilliant!
But the lack of nuance is where the film gets itself in trouble, and it could have easily been avoided. First off, there is not one redeemable man in this film, not even Ryan. And before you bitch, no, that’s not a spoiler. Anyone with eyes could see from the second he appeared as a handsome, funny guy that the romance was doomed to fall apart due to a “twist” involving him being an asshole, too. Every single male in this movie, with the exception of Cassie’s father, is either a rapist, potential rapist, or rape apologist, and even her father is willing to engage in a little bit of light dismissal, mansplaining, and gaslighting. Alfred Molina plays a lawyer who purposely intimidated victims, including Nina, and he gets the tiniest bit of forgiveness, but only after begging for it after an off-screen nervous breakdown about his misdeeds. In this film, there’s not only no such thing as a “nice guy,” but also no such thing as a “guy who isn’t a fucking monster.”
An ounce of nuance would go a long way here. Let there be one scene where someone takes Cassie home from the bar, but actually DOES take her to HER home and doesn’t try anything. Trust me, those guys are out there. They don’t necessarily frequent douchebag nightclubs on the weekends, but they do exist, and I’d wager that they’re the vast majority of all guys. Having one dude show that he’s not a predator I think would have been more effective than Nina’s mother (Molly Shannon) telling Cassie to simply “let it go and move on” in terms of getting Cassie to question her own agenda and behavior.
Similarly, while I did love the scares that Brie and Britton’s characters got, it comes from a premise of automatically believing the alleged victim’s account without question, which is not a proper solution. Take the accusation seriously. Don’t dismiss it. Investigate it fully while keeping due process rights in mind rather than just using it as a crutch to wash your hands of the situation. That’s how it’s supposed to be handled, objectively, empathetically, and respectfully. One non-rapist guy and a message to Connie Britton to take future accusations seriously would be the nuanced approach, and I feel it would have improved the film greatly, because while the revenge stuff is awesome, if you’re not going to outright kill or maim the perps, you have to give them a chance to make right. And we don’t do that here. We get our moment, and then move on to the next target, blissfully unaware if any lessons had been learned for the majority of the characters.
There are other flaws as well, which are more a matter of taste. First off, the soundtrack is painfully bad. Nothing but terrible pop track after terrible pop track. The beginning of the climax is set to “Toxic.” A cute-funny date between Cassie involves singing along to Paris fucking Hilton’s single. Yeah, remember THAT piece of shit? What purpose does any of this serve? It’s annoying and shallow and doesn’t aid anything in the story. All it made me want to do was mute my screen. Was Fennell trying to aurally rape the audience while discussing physical rape through the characters? Seriously, what the fuck?
Secondly, Fennell attempts to blend genres here and there with a low return on investment, mostly because she doesn’t go for the gusto. The film is ostensibly a thriller and a dark comedy, and it’s at its best when it leans into that. But I just wanted a bit more, I guess. When Cassie sets her traps, it’s fun, and the first time (the film’s opening, heavily featured in the trailer) cuts out right at the reveal, which leaves a little mystery as to what she actually does with these guys. Remember what I said about the lack of subtlety being good? Go balls to the wall with this! Make it a violent gore fest. Have her fucking kill some dudes or go full Lorena Bobbitt on their asses. Trust me, we’ll be into it, given the time Fennell takes to show us what slimeballs these guys are. Pay off the setup.
My favorite all-time horror film is Wes Craven’s debut, The Last House on the Left, which was originally called Night of Vengeance. It too is a rape revenge fantasy, where the victim’s parents extract some bloody gruesome comeuppance on a quartet of tweaked out psycho killers set to a soundtrack that sounds like a Harry Nilsson album. It’s batshit insane and I loved it because the film – being so low budget that it was shot without permits surreptitiously – could just take whatever risks it wanted and just went for it. If we leaned more into the darkness here and introduced some ultraviolence and horror elements, they certainly would have worked. Hell, this film was produced in part by Margot Robbie under her “LuckyChap” production company, so why not pull some Harley Quinn moves, but in a more realistic, non-comic book style? Instead, 95% of Ryan’s role is to give us a shoehorned romantic comedy subplot that again, we all know will come crumbling down, so apart from a few decent one-liners, it didn’t do much for me. Of all the genres to fuse into this, why that one?
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to the good stuff and end this as a sort of “Critique Sandwich,” where I stick the bad meat in between the pleasant buns. That sounded less gross and inappropriate in my head.
Anyway, in addition to Carey Mulligan’s fantastic performance, I want to give some major props to the production design team. The sets are spectacularly appointed, from the neon glow of the various bars (which also plays into the Harley Quinn vibe) to the Cabin in the Woods-esque woodland bachelor party retreat, to Cassie’s parents’ house which is just oozing pink surfaces and paintings of dogs, there is just so much to love here, and it’s to Fennell’s credit as a new director that she keeps these things framed in individual scenes in a way that shows them off as a complement to the motivations of the characters.
And on a more serious note, I like to think that a lot of thought went into the specific casting choices in this film. If there’s one bit of nuance in the movie, it’s here, because we’re dealing – in a fairly lighthearted way despite the dark humor – with a really heavy subject, and this cast is filled with people who have definitely experienced objectification to some degree. Jennifer Coolidge is best known to audiences as the original “MILF,” Stifler’s mom in the American Pie movies. She’s been a sexualized figure for more than 20 years now. Laverne Cox, being transgender, has had to fight battles her entire life, including violence and threats against her well-being. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, once celebrated as “McLovin,” plays one of the men who tries to take advantage of Cassie. Depending on the lens through which you view him, those two characters are arguably the same guy. There are a good number of casting choices that give you pause about how you perceive certain types of people in a sexual context, and if they were intentional, then kudos.
Overall, there’s enough to recommend here. It doesn’t quite stick the landing in places, mostly because it doesn’t lean hard enough into its stronger moments and other times gets bogged down when cynicism stands in for nuance. But there is a lot of good stuff here, particularly Mulligan in what is easily the best performance of her career. The messaging gets a bit muddied at times, but this is still a strong first effort from Emerald Fennell.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy revenge movies? If your date started singing Paris Hilton, how fast would you run away? Let me know!