“Promising Young Woman” Movie Review

Warning: Review contains mention of suicide and rape 

I never like arriving early to the movie theater. Typically the theater will run 15-20 minutes of trailers before the inevitable “Please silence your cellphones” message appears and the movie can begin. Like in many other ways, my girlfriend thinks differently, enjoying the trailers and planning our next date to the theater. This was the case in late December 2019 when my girlfriend and I caught a screening of Adam Sandler’s “Uncut Gems”. As we awaited the suspenseful Sandler film, a trailer scored by an orchestral rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” filled the screen. As the strings wailed the classic Spears tune, the bright blues, pinks and purples pulled the audience in, revealing the upcoming film to be Emerald Fennel’s “Promising Young Woman” starring Carey Mulligan and Comedian Bo Burnham. Captivated by the trailer, “Promising Young Woman” was added to the list of films my girlfriend and I planned to see. Due to the closure of theaters, “Promising Young Woman” would be delayed from April 2020 to a home release on Jan.15. 

“Promising Young Woman” is an examination of college rape culture and the long term effects sexual assault and rape have on a victim and those who surround them. Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who pretends to be too intoxicated at bars to trick men into taking her home so she can scare them away from raping truly intoxicated women. It’s made clear that Cassie does this to protect women that can’t consent, something she couldn’t do for her friend Nina who was raped in college and committed suicide prior to the film’s opening. Cassie’s pursuit of justice leads her to track down Nina’s rapist, a successful doctor from the same program Cassie and Nina dropped out of after the college’s administration didn’t investigate Nina’s rape. Cassie’s revenge plan is slowed when she reconnects with a classmate Ryan, played by Burnham, as she is given a reason to live other than revenge. 

The film is slow to begin, taking half of its run time to get to the meat of the story, but pays off with a stellar second half. Mulligan gives a fairly decent performance, though I differ from other critics as I wouldn’t praise the actress’s work either. I was most surprised by Burnham’s portrayal of Ryan, as the stand-up is typically not seen as an actor. Fennel’s writing has very little nuance and the film’s messages feel heavy-handed. With very little gray area for characters, it sometimes felt as if they were unnaturally good or evil, rather than real people with substance. Characters speak unnaturally and act in ways that don’t make sense. Though I find the story to be slow to the punch, “Promising Young Woman” delivers a gut punch in the final hour of the film, a fairly cathartic and surprising end to a movie I wish had more to say.

As far as handling the subject of rape on college campuses, I think “Promising Young Woman” tackles the subject with equal parts care and fury. Though Cassie holds back from harming potential rapists, she scares those who prey upon unconsenting women and those who don’t listen to victims. The film equates the act of rape and the silence of authorities, something I would agree can be equally as harmful. Though it isn’t the revenge some would like to see, I believe “Promising Young Woman” accomplishes the task of criticizing both rapists and those who don’t take victims seriously, especially on college campuses.  

Though it fell short in many ways, “Promising Young Woman” is an important film that leaves the viewers in awe as it ends. With good performances by Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham, an excellent soundtrack and some great cinematography, I will be thinking of the film for days to come. Though the film doesn’t portray rape at any point, the subject is discussed immensely, so those who are disturbed by the subject may want to avoid it. I recommend this film to college students and adults as there are many discussions to be had about the current collegiate climate and the inaction of college and police when it comes to taking victims seriously.     

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Alec Jensen

“Promising Young Woman” Movie Review

by Alec Jensen time to read: 3 min