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‘Promising Young Woman’ Promises, But Doesn’t Deliver

Originally scheduled for an April 17 release in theaters, “Promising Young Woman” — like many other 2020 films — was pulled from the release slate due to the pandemic. Soon after, the film was retrieved from its temporary movie purgatory and set to be released on Christmas Day. 

With the virus still raging on and at one of its worst peaks, the film only made about $3 million worldwide. But just three weeks later, director Emerald Fennell’s first feature length film found its way onto V.O.D (video on demand) on Jan. 15, allowing audiences to watch safely from their homes. After almost a year since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, people were finally able to watch this anticipated, colorful revenge thriller. However, it wasn’t what audiences expected. 

Years after her best friend Nina is sexually assaulted in college, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends her nights at clubs pretending to be completely drunk, barely able to stand. Then, when a “nice guy” inevitably takes her home and tries to take advantage of her, she reveals she’s completely sober and confronts him about his actions. 

The film’s trailers give the impression of a revenge story — one with implied intensity and even the extremities of violence. But as it turns out, all Cassie ends up doing is giving these men a good scare. Therein lies what is potentially the film’s biggest flaw: its refusal to provide any real catharsis. 

When you think of a revenge thriller, specifically starring women, the first thing that comes to mind is gory, gratuitous violence; think of Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 film “Kill Bill” or Coralie Fargeat’s 2017 film “Revenge.” Physical harm in no way equates to justice and the lack of physical violence isn’t in itself a flaw; however, it becomes an issue when there is nothing to replace the emotional release that revenge thrillers have come to provide. In fact, the only instance of violence in the film is inflicted on a woman.  

Photos provided by Promising Young Woman @PromisingFilm/Twitter.

In the film, Cassie’s verbal confrontations with the men she encounters only causes them to panic and defend themselves as “nice guys.” But, how effective is this moment of self reflection really? The audience gets to witness these men fear for their image;in the end, however, this brings only temporary gratitude, as they just get to continue with their lives. This cathartic letdown is amplified by the film’s advertising, which misleads the viewer into believing that there is more to Cassie’s encounters than just brief, weak moral lessons.

Without entirely revealing the movie’s conclusion, its ending serves as the main source of negative critiques. The final moments are completely out of Cassie’s control and become heavily dependent on those proven previously unreliable in the past. It disappoints in a way that is entirely too appropriate for the film’s already present shortcomings, and ultimately it leaves the audience with a sense of utter helplessness. Very little is in the hands of the protagonist, and in the hands of women, which could be argued as more of a “statement” about a misogynistic society. However, considering the advertising and intended theme of strength, this bleak conclusion leaves audiences feeling uncomfortable, and even cheated.

While her character’s actions are potentially “underwhelming,” Mulligan’s performance is undoubtedly the highlight of the movie. She navigates a woman struggling to cope with a tragic loss, all alone in a world that seems to have forgotten about the event that changed her life. It’s all too easy to turn a character like Cassie into an over-the-top, manic caricature, but Mulligan handles this role with composure. Cassie is calculated and sure of herself, which is easy to see in each one of Mulligan’s footsteps and in every sentence she utters. 

Photo provided by Promising Young Woman @PromisingFilm/Twitter.

Despite the ultimate lack of empowerment in Cassie’s attempts at retribution, the film’s soundtrack tries to make up for it. Comprised entirely of female artists — save for a cutting orchestral rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” composed by Anthony Willis — the soundtrack is filled with provocative and zealous lyrics. The 16 song soundtrack features prominent upcoming alternative pop artists such as FLETCHER, Cyn and MUNA, each providing their own unique sound and energy to the album. 

Accompanying the film’s lively music is a just as lively, but slightly less bold, color palette. Reminiscent of a candy store, the screen is often filled with pastel pinks, baby blues and mint greens. There are occasional touches of royal blues and lipstick reds to add an appealing contrast. Cassie’s wardrobe mimics a juvenile candy aesthetic; she follows the same color palette and wears lots of floral clothing. These are  conscious choices that play well into the film’s tone. With a subject as tragic as sexual assault, the visual style creates a thematic dissonance that assists in pulling off the film’s dark comedic aspect.

Photo provided by Promising Young Woman @PromisingFilm/Twitter.

“Promising Young Woman” isn’t a bad film, just an unfulfilling one, since it decides that violence isn’t the answer. For some, this will be a relief, and they’ll get to enjoy the candy-coated set and the film’s optimistic ending. However, for those seeking an emotional release or sense of primal gratification, this revenge thriller will only be reminiscent of an all too familiar, bleak reality.

Hilary Gil is an Entertainment Staff Writer. She can be reached at hsgil@uci.edu.