Put together writer-director Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman and another knockout feature debut, Kitty Green’s The Assistant, and you have an incisive, incendiary double bill for the #MeToo era. Fennell, a gifted filmmaker who is also an actress (she was a regular on “em>Call the Midwife and plays Camilla Parker Bowles in the current season of The Crown), manages a pitch black comedy that’s visually and tonally arresting, with a flamethrower of a script.
Carey Mulligan plays Cassie (for Cassandra, of course), a young woman full of female fury who is exacting her revenge. Mulligan’s performance ranks among the best of the year and among the best of her brilliant career. Cassie, in a series of wigs and outfits, pretends to be falling down drunk at nightclubs. Without fail, a “nice guy” shows concern, takes her home and soon tries to force nonconsensual sex. The suddenly stone cold sober Cassie then sharply turns the tables, scaring and humiliating the predator and showing him what a creep he is.
Her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) don’t know how to help her as she turns 30 and has no plans to move out of their tacky house. Cassie is a medical school dropout and has been spiraling downward ever since the suicide of her lifelong best friend and fellow med student, Nina.
Fennell’s smart, feminist vigilante script is rich with irony but it is Mulligan who reveals the devastating loss and raw pain fueling Cassie’s actions. We gradually realize that Nina, also a top med student, was raped at a drunken party while “nice” people looked on, laughed, and did nothing. There are numerous real life scenarios that make the story even more infuriating, including the one that inspired the 2018 documentary Roll Red Roll.
Cassie coolly confronts with elaborate revenge schemes several who bear responsibility for what led to Nina’s despair and death including the college dean (Connie Britton) who was more concerned about the accused male student. There’s the defense lawyer (Alfred Molina) whose trial tactics blamed the victim and who is now mired in remorse. Cassie’s brilliantly calculated lessons underscore how the men were protected and defended and how they advanced and thrived while Nina, like many women, paid with the loss of opportunities, careers, self-esteem and lives.
It’s a savage social commentary with an ending that is shocking and controversial. Without revealing too much, Cassie pays far too high a price for justice that very well may not come at all. But that’s the point. Promising Young Woman means to push buttons and provoke reactions. It’s a scorching indictment wrapped in a sophisticated revenge fantasy.