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'Promising Young Woman' demands to know why we protect so-called promising young men

You won't be able to stop thinking about this provocative thriller with Carey Mulligan about a woman out for revenge after a college rape upends her life.
Image: Carey Mulligan stars as \"Cassandra\" in a scene from \"Promising Young Woman.\"
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra in a scene from "Promising Young Woman."Focus Features

“Promising Young Woman” is a brilliant, challenging, neon-pink punch to the gut that calls into question what it means for survivors to survive. It’s like “Heathers” meets “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” for successful young professionals; it’s so provocative that a fight broke out at its first test screening.

I can’t stop thinking about it.

Writer/director Emerald Fennell — who is also the showrunner for the second season of “Killing Eve” and the actor who portrays Camilla Parker Bowles in “The Crown” — has created a brilliant, black-hearted 21st century thriller that punctures the hypocrisy of a society less concerned with justice for survivors of sexual assault than the supposedly promising futures of their attackers. It’s also an aesthetic delight with immaculately designed suburban interiors and costumes, packed with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references and an uncannily catchy soundtrack.

Cassandra Thomas, played by Carey Mulligan with the blank affect of someone who is totally disassociated, was once a promising young woman. But after an initially unspecified “something” happened to her best friend, Nina, she dropped out of med school, moved back into her parents’ sprawling suburban house and proceeded to spend years sullenly working at a coffee shop. Her only friend is her boss, Gail, played by Laverne Cox, who is concerned enough to threaten firing Cassandra just so she can do something else with her life.

But Cassandra is, in fact, doing something else with her life: By night, she dresses up in elaborate costumes and heads to various bars and clubs, where she pretends to get very drunk and makes a very real spectacle of herself. The men who take advantage (who perhaps don’t think of themselves as dangerous predators but are exactly that) are Cassie’s prey for her one-woman seminar on sexual consent; like any good caricatures, they’re over-the-top and utterly recognizable.

It’s also a movie about what survival really entails in a society that is more interested in moving past traumas than dealing with them.

Take, for instance, Adam Brody’s puppy dog-eyed businessman who gets disgusted by his friends leering at a stumbling drunk Cassie and gets her an Uber home… well, to his home, where she goes from barely coherent and mumbling, “What are you doing?” to wide awake and confrontational, popping upright like a reanimated zombie as she stares him down from between her legs.

“Hey,” Cassandra demands. “I said: What? Are? You? Doing?”

“You are not as rare as you think,” she tells one would-be novelist-predator with an equal love for David Foster Wallace and cocaine. (This is another great casting choice: Christopher Mintz-Plasse — who played the booze- and sex-obsessed McLovin from “Superbad” — as the sensitive feminist type who tells her that guys don’t actually like makeup.)

Carey Mulligan stars as "Cassandra" in a scene from "Promising Young Woman."Courtesy of Focus Features / Focus Features

So perhaps the movie is shades of “Mr. Goodbar” — but with a dangerous twist for the men and more deliberate risks on Cassie’s part, no matter how dissociated she seemed from the consequences of those risks. I was never sure if any of the men would actually stop when she said no or how far her anger would take her if they didn’t, but that’s the point.

Like her Greek namesake, Cassandra holds up a mirror to those around her, and they don’t like what they see. And the anger that she carries within her is as easily turned inward as out; her only desire in life seems to be this low-level vengeance edged with self-destruction.

It's a brilliant, black-hearted 21st century thriller that punctures the hypocrisy of a society less concerned with justice for survivors of sexual assault than the supposedly promising futures of their attackers.

Cassie’s increasingly epic quest for revenge on anyone who had anything to do with Nina’s Event is slightly derailed when a pediatric surgeon, Ryan (Bo Burnham), she went to med school with her asks her out. He is patient and tender with Cassie, whose behavior he finds confounding, but he can also give as good as he gets when it comes to dark humor. Cassie starts to open up but, like a bank robber who wants to do one last heist, she has just one last person she wants to confront.

On its surface, “Promising Young Woman” is about the length society will go to protect a certain class of “promising young man” — white, educated, rich and with parents who can hire expensive lawyers to protect them from the consequences of their actions. The people complicit in their protection aren’t just men, of course — and Cassie doesn’t spare them either.

But beneath that, “Promising Young Woman” punctures the illusion of societal propriety. The tony med school that Cassie dropped out of doesn’t sound too far off from the high school that the teenage girls in “Heathers” held in their preppy ‘90s thrall, right down to blackout binge drinking and back-stabbing students. No one wants to admit what happened to Nina, so it’s referred to with euphemisms for most of the movie until Cassie forces them to confront what happened and to call it by its name: rape.

But it’s also a movie about what survival really entails in a society that is more interested in moving past traumas than dealing with them. Cassie is alive but she’s in stasis; she’s surviving but far from thriving. On her 30th birthday — which she claimed to have forgotten — her parents give her a pink suitcase as a hint to get out.

The question then becomes how far she will go to exact this revenge and what new toll it will take on her and on whatever personal progress she’s managed despite herself. After all, she was such a promising young woman; often we find a way to fulfill those promises, one way or another.