Spoilers from the Very Start and Sexual Discussion
I don’t normally, in reviews, give key plot points away. I certainly don’t normally do as full a plot description as the review below, but I thought I’d try something different. To that end, this is NOT a review if you haven’t seen the film. And if you HAVE seen the film, you might think: “Why are you just telling me what happened?” I saw it, you idiot.“
Ah well, here we go anyway.
A Promising Young Woman is getting a lot of plaudits at the moment – including a decent haul at the Baftas last weekend including Outstanding British Picture. It’s easy to see why at first glance – there are some strong performances (particularly by Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham) and it’s a story of the moment: a young woman seeks revenge on those (mostly, but not exclusively) men who acted inappropriately towards a friend of hers a number of years ago. Inappropriately is a very light term for the events Cassie (Mulligan)’s friend Nina endured, but the movie seems to prefer suggestion than out-and-out definition. Nina was raped. The movie doesn’t come right out and say it using that word, but there’s no doubt that’s what happened. The event was so traumatic it caused Nina to drop out of medical school when the authorities (headed by a woman – more on this in a moment) chose to side with the ‘boy’ involved in what they deemed a ‘he said-she said’ situation that happens ‘literally every week’. Cassie dropped out too, to look after her friend. Now, years on, Cassie is working in a coffee shop and Nina is dead. (Again, not explicitly said, but the implication is clear – she has committed suicide, although we don’t know when). Cassie spends her day pouring coffee (or not – she’s not an employee of the month), and her nights at nightclubs and bars where she acts drunk, picking up men who would take advantage of the situation and back at their place she…
She makes it clear to them that they’re not nice people.
Now, let’s stop a moment.
The first trailer for Promising Young Woman intrigued me. A woman (Cassie), in a bar, dead drunk getting picked up. Back to her rescuer’s apartment where he’s plying her with even more drink and then, as she’s virtually unconscious on the bed, starts to undress her, telling her she’s fine, and everything’s okay, as he prepares to go down on her: between her legs, removing her underwear…at which point she sits up, dead sober and asks him what he’s doing.
That’s an intriguing trailer that suggests a lot to come.
It’s also pretty much a shortened version of the film’s opening.
We cut to the next scene (in the film), of Cassie walking home eating fast food with red smeared on her arm, scaring the wolf-whistling builders across the street into embarrassed and apparently frightened submission with just an amused looked – a woman of power. The implication is clear. Especially if the viewer has seen movies like (the far superior) Audition, or revenge movies such as I Spit On Your Grave, Ms 45 and many others.
Cassie is a woman who is exacting a brutal revenge on the scum who deserve it. And there are a lot of characters in this movie who deserve ‘it’.
We see Cassie at home with her parents – Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge – loving, caring but frustrated at what she’s done (or hasn’t done) with her life. We see her at work, where her boss (Laverne Cox) is desperate for her to do something more with her life. And then we see her with her next ‘victim’: a coke snorting douche bag (Christopher Mintz Plasse) who has, apparently (we don’t see it) coaxed her back to his place and is trying to ply her with his product as he moves on her, hand up her skirt and his finger ‘inside her’, and then snap: Cassie reveals her soberiety and…tells him he’s a bit of a scumbag. He’s scared. He’s ‘a good guy’, he argues, as he backs up, terrified, by Cassie. Who…basically tells him he shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing.
Cassie’s not killing these men. She’s not even physically hurting them. She’s willing to allow them to strip her, feel her up, even insert a digit into her, in order to shock them and tell them they’re not nice guys. When she’s stopped in the middle of a deserted highway (okay…) and the abusive truck driver pulls up alongside her screaming abuse she smashes his vehicle lights and windscreen, but that, apparently, is her limit (and the driver? He’s so terrified he burns rubber getting out of there…from my own experience road rage drivers do not react that way).
It sets the tone for the movie: Cassie wants revenge for her dead friend – on Madison (Alison Brie), the female classmate who said nothing who Cassie gets drunk at lunch and then hands over her hotel room key to a mystery man at the bar…sinister, right? Yes. Although we eventually learn he just put her to bed and sat with her), to the university professor (Or some other authority figure – I wasn’t quite clear what her role was, other than to be the woman who sided with Al, Nina’s accused) who makes her excuses until Cassie reveals she’s left her daughter with a bunch of drunk frat boys (don’t worry – she hasn’t, she just left her in a diner). Cassie visits the scumbag lawyer (a for some reason uncredited, Alfred Molina) who got the guilty party off in Nina’s case…here at least, Cassie has a heavy outside apparently ready to beat him up, but when she finds out he’s had an epiphany about all the bad things he’s done, she calls it off.
Cassie isn’t some man-hating killing machine (the latter obviously, the former, we start to understand when she starts a relationship with Ryan – apparently the only decent person in the medical school year she was in…stop me if you can see where this is going…) and decides, partly at the request of Nina’s mother to stop all her late night entrapment (It’s not quite clear how Nina’s mother knows what she’s doing, but she’s got a general idea).
And then Madison turns up – worried half-to-death about what happened during her drunken black out and so relieved when Cassie tells her nothing happened that she hands over the video tape of what happened that night. A tape that was apparently being ‘passed around’ around at the time. Why she was sent a copy, why no-one did anything with this and why those on it seem to be so shocked and horrified that it exists when it was clearly being mass emailed to phones (we’ll ignore video file sizes etc) is never really explained. But finding Ryan was part of it is enough to send Cassie on a final revenge spree – turning up at the remote cabin (as all good horror films must have) under the guise of a stripper at Al’s bachelor party. (Was the punk nurse outfit a nod to producer Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn?)
Have the bros matured in the ten years or so since the event? Take a guess. One thing that I didn’t guess was the outcome of Cassie’s revenge on Al. (And even here, at her very worst, her intention appeared to be to brand him rather than kill him). Al overpowers her and smothers her.
Yep, no coming back. Maybe it was the nature of the film up to that point that I was still expecting her to be playing possum or to come spluttering back from the edge. It was the most surprising and therefore effective part of the movie for me. The disposal of her body was effectively done (in film terms, obviously).
And so the bad guys get away with it. The police accept Cassie has ‘taken off’. We end with the bros at the wedding – clearly not going to change, and Ryan looking mildly wistful at his phone. And then…surprise surprise, Cassie’s scheduled messages start pinging through. She’s sent the video. And the police are arriving and making arrests in a cinematically pleasing, but logically nonsensical kind of way. Cue a series of scheduled messages from Cassie, one popping through after another, for maximum effect and titles.
I was running tech at a crime festival recently where two of the most popular crime/ mystery authors around today, Mark Billingham and Chris Brookmyre were headlining. During the conversation, talk turned to movies (Brookmyre’s latest book is set against a movie making backdrop: I’m halfway through it now, and enjoying it a lot) and TV. One of the authors commented about a certain TV series words to the effect that ‘you wouldn’t get away with that in a novel – the scrutiny is too much’. I think he’s right. I’ve found it in the short stories I’ve written and ten times more in the first two novels I’ve written. You agonize over making the logic fit. You (or at least I do) bang your head thinking, No, that’s not realistic because… or, that wouldn’t work because…
Promising Young Woman was, for me, a film that was full of those moments. An enjoyable enough piece as you watch it, but give it any thought afterwards and there are so many ‘well, what about….’ moments.
Is it a major movie with a B movie plot basis, or a B movie with good performances (Mulligan and Burnham are excellent, and some of the small cameos and bit parts are fun to watch – Clancy Brown as a nice guy (actually the ONLY nice guy in the whole thing) – who’d have thought?)?
Some of the very best premises come out of the B movie stables. They don’t always have the budget, time or production to fully realize their original thoughts (and this IS an intriguing, if NOTHING like the original many are claiming, premise.), but they often make up for that in enthusiasm and energy.
Maybe that’s where I found myself with Promising Young Woman – it sits in a pretty traditional ‘exploitation’ sub genre of revenge flicks. It was a zero budget film, according to writer/ director Emerald Fennell during her (to be kind, unprepared) acceptance speech at the Baftas last week. It’s a little tricky to know what that budget actually was – online says ‘$5–16.9 million’ which is quite the range to estimate. There were clearly, judging by the cast, a lot of favours or minimal scale payments made to get the ensemble together. The soundtrack alone must have used up quite a lot of money, and for a fast shoot – 23 days, it looks good.
So it’s something of a paradox: a movie that speaks of serious issues, but puts them forward in an almost PG manner where we have to believe the protagonist is angry enough to come up with her plan, smart enough to get away with it, but still ultimately, not the sociopath one (female) character claims her to be to take it through to what a true ‘B’ movie would show.
Enjoyable? Sure – definitely enjoyable enough to watch. Would I have enjoyed it if it had been a novel? I’d have been rolling my eyes and shouting at the page quite a lot, I think.