promises promises

What, Exactly, Is ‘New’ About Promising Young Woman?

Photo: Focus Features

In Promising Young Woman, billed as a story of female power and a “new take” on revenge, Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is mad as hell and she wants to teach you a lesson. An allegedly brilliant 30-year-old medical school dropout, Cassie lives with her parents, works at a coffee shop, and on the weekends plays a dangerous game.

This is how it works: Cassie goes to a club and pretends to be drunk. Cassie goes home with a man; Cassie sees what happens next and so do we. It’s never surprising: Everything rotten and cruel in the world is precedented and predictable. This movie isn’t an after-school special, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was one.

Nina, Cassie’s best friend, exists in childhood photographs and somewhere offscreen as the motivation for Cassie’s late-night games, as well as the reason for her early exit from medical school. This narrative trick of obfuscation does nothing but create a listless sort of waiting for the majority of the film — what happened to her? And how does she relate to what Cassie’s doing now? — which is to say that there is very little plot to follow, but there are a lot of questions.

What we do know is that Cassie has no friends, no life, and no discernible personality or interests outside of these weekend escapades. We never witness her using her intelligence in service of anything but teaching a lesson to a man or a woman who has enabled a bad man, which makes me question what part of this represents a new story for women. The idea of a woman existing just for the benefit and enrichment of others is quite literally a tale as old as time. Cassie is given the gravitas of a saint and the omniscience of a god, a storytelling choice that robs her of her humanity, making it easier to deliver the same old story that’s always told about girls and women: A good girl is a quiet girl who becomes an obedient woman, but the best girl is a dead girl who never becomes a woman at all.

Promising Young Woman is a comedy so dark it’s illegible. Enter Gail (Laverne Cox), Cassie’s boss, and Ryan (Bo Burnham), her former schoolmate and soon-to-be love interest. Gail and Ryan desperately deliver comedic lines to varying degrees of success, as if trying to justify the movie’s comedy billing. The movie bounces between dimly lit scenes in seedy clubs and the bright lights of Cassie’s workplace with such speed that there’s never time to recalibrate yourself to its moods.

It’s not a serious melodrama, except when it is, and it’s not a horror film, except when it’s horrifying. Does that make sense? It’s confusing to keep track of writer and director Emerald Fennell’s in-story rules, which lack both the conviction of the trailer’s promise and the decency of a good time. Cassie drolly and compulsively delivers life lessons, making strangers and old acquaintances alike reckon with the truth of their behavior in contrast to their beliefs about themselves. In this movie, being a woman is work — dangerous, humiliating, titillating work, and most importantly of all, it’s a performance.

And so, Cassie performs. When her parents and her boss express confusion at what it is exactly she’s doing with her life, Cassie gets a boyfriend and performs the role of girlfriend. And the performance, all of it, is spectacular — the movie is never as good as Mulligan’s portrayal of Cassie. She is fascinating, wringing despair, boredom, and anger out of a one-ply character. She thrums with a suppressed rage, and it’s thrilling at first, but her energy is never really used for or against anything, except for a few quick moments of release — upending a trashcan, breaking the taillights and cracking the windshield on a man’s car — which end just as soon as they begin.

By the time the giant pink tally marks appear onscreen, you start to wonder where any of this is going. Unlike a conventional horror film or thriller, there is no villain’s speech to take us from point A to point B. I’m not even really sure there is a villain, as a system can’t be villainous, though the people who invent it, operate it, and cleave to it can be. And yet, even after spending multiple scenes presenting the many men and women who act as foot soldiers for the patriarchy, the film still insists that the solution is in asking for better behavior within the system, not leaving it behind entirely. Where is the imagination in that? Where is the new take we were promised?

To call this a bad movie would take away from the fact that it’s exhausting, boring, reductive, repetitive, and deeply ordinary. Our worst movies have always made entertainment out of women suffering. This is nothing new.

What, Exactly, Is ‘New’ About Promising Young Woman?