When Britney Spears sang “A guy like you should wear a warning” in her 2003 banger “Toxic,” the track seemed like a winking nod to a certain kind of recklessness that often goes hand-in-hand with the hedonistic euphoria of really, really liking someone. Digging deeper into the “Toxic” lyrics, it’s clear that like so many pop songs from the early ’00s, it exists in the blurry lines between affection and obsession, and between denial and consent. Fitting, then, that the song about a “poison paradise” plays such a pivotal role in Emerald Fennell’s venomous Promising Young Woman.
A revenge tale that uses messy verve to tackle how sexual assault is discussed, judged, and dismissed by a profoundly patriarchal American society, Promising Young Woman is designed as a provocation. As the aptly named Cassandra, Carey Mulligan, in possibly the strongest performance of her career, lobs this incendiary Molotov cocktail with a wink and a sneer.
Production designer Michael Perry brings to life a world of adult playgrounds — nightclubs, bars, bachelor parties — where toxic masculinity is allowed to thrive, while costume designer Nancy Steiner imagines the feminine outfits to counter these spaces. (Don’t be surprised to see a number of candy-striper costumes inspired by this film at Halloween celebrations in 2021, if we’re back to celebrations at that point.) The brightly rendered details and Mulligan’s full-throated performance accessorize a film that ultimately might not be as groundbreaking as Fennell thinks it is regarding gender roles and heterosexual dynamics. But there’s an undeniable satisfaction to her brutish approach.
Promising Young Woman begins with a slurred “Fuck her,” and every subsequent minute of the film unpacks, then attacks, the casual misogyny that leads to such an off-the-cuff dismissal. A trio of bros complain about a female coworker and how they can’t go to strip clubs anymore because of her whining. Then they zero in on a woman in trouble. She can’t sit up straight. Her clothes are hiking up. She can’t string a sentence together. “They put themselves in danger, girls like that,” they say, and the vibe is first feigned concern, then wolfish opportunity.
But Cassandra (Mulligan) isn’t a victim in the anticipated ways. She can take care of herself. Every Friday night, she puts on a different outfit (sometimes revealing, sometimes not), does her makeup (sometimes smeared, sometimes not), and goes to a different nightclub or bar or restaurant, where she performs the role of a damsel in distress, and waits for men callous or predatory enough to take the bait. Her vigilante mission has been going on for years — since she dropped out of medical school, moved back home, and took a job at a coffee shop. The abrupt change is a mystery to nearly everyone. Her parents don’t understand why their daughter, once at the top of her class, is now back in her childhood bedroom at 30 years old. Her old classmates have mostly forgotten her. Even Gail (Laverne Cox), Cassandra’s boss at the coffee shop and her only friend, doesn’t understand what she’s doing with her life.
As Promising Young Woman slowly unravels Cassandra’s motivations and guiding principles, Fennell’s script strikes an uneasy balance. On the one hand, some of the film’s most gratifying moments also rely on the most low-hanging-fruit conceits, like the way Cassandra unnerves a group of catcallers by stopping and staring at them, her silent judgment enough to turn their propositions into jeers. Or Mulligan’s voice dropping an octave lower when she eviscerates a film bro who patronizes her by saying men don’t like when women wear too much makeup. (“This whole soul-sucking system meant to oppress women is fucked up,” says the guy trying to push her into bed.) Or how Cassandra spits in a dismissive customer’s drink, then serves it to him with a smile.
Those scenarios aren’t exactly nuanced, but Fennell gives a voice to the exasperation of being treated purely, and only, like a sexual object, and Mulligan lives and breathes that rage. (Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town comes to mind more than once during Cassandra’s memories of her medical-school experience.) So much of Promising Young Woman is a fantasy in response to socially inflicted powerlessness, and when those moments hit, they hit hard.
Mulligan is the tornado at the center of this film, and her performance combines so many qualities already mastered in her other work: her stillness as Irene in Drive, her girlish innocence as Jenny in An Education, her fearlessness as Sissy in Shame, and her desperation as Jeanette in Wildlife. Mulligan sparks against everyone in the deep supporting cast, which includes many actors doing the most with their screen time: Clancy Brown as Cassandra’s concerned father, Bo Burnham as her pediatric-surgeon love interest, Cox as Cassandra’s gently chiding boss and friend, and Alfred Molina doing his best impression of Tom Wilkinson from Michael Clayton.
And there’s a subversiveness to Fennell’s casting of former internet boyfriends like Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and Chris Lowell, and how reveal the artifice of the Nice Guy persona.
But there’s an unevenness in the way Promising Young Woman flirts with the idea that Cassandra is an imperfect victim. Fennell’s film would be bolder and more discomfiting if she were more confident about Cassandra’s cruelty toward the women who behave in ways that make them complicit with male violence. The black-and-white nature of the film’s division between male and female culpability ignores many of the real world’s shades of grey. But there is a certain logic to the way Promising Young Woman focuses its ire, and to how it positions Cassandra as able to manipulate the fear and panic that comes from a “he-said, she-said” position. Although the film’s consideration of misogyny and misandry aren’t as unique as Fennell might like to think, the singularity of her vision and the fearlessness of Mulligan’s performance are both admirable. Flaws and all, Promising Young Woman is fully itself.