MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Black Comedy Thriller/Stars: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Chris Lowell, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, Alfred Molina, Molly Shannon, Angela Zhou/ Runtime: 113 minutes
Before I go any further with this review I strongly feel that there is a singular item I need to make crystal clear to you right from the get go dear reader: film helmer Emerald Fennell’s new slice of cinematic pie Promising Young Woman is most assuredly not the movie that you might in the back of your mind be suspecting that it is. By that I mean yes this is a narrative that deals with that time honored concept known as vengeance, but it is not done in a way that has either been done before or is conventional in any sense of the imagination. Also yes this is a film that manages to check a lot of the boxes in the thriller genre of movie magic, but it really truly does come equipped with curves in the road that no matter how hard you try you will not see coming. Finally I can also say with confidence that whilst this film does operate on some level as a dark comedy, I can in the same breath also promise you that you have no idea just how far this slice of cinematic pie is willing to go for the sake of a punchline that is more of a punch to the gut than anything comedic. Suffice it to say then that with all of those things in play there is one more thing I guess I can say with 110% confidence. That of course being the fact that this slice of cinematic pie is not what you may think it is because there has not been a movie like this if not ever then at least in a long time and as the movie manages to astonish and stun you in equal measure as it goes through its 7 minutes shy of 2 hours runtime, you will come to see that what you are in the process of viewing is something truly novel and revelatory from individuals who deserve all the praise in the world for what they have managed to conjure up here. Indeed whilst there is a certain comfort of sorts that is given to us by movies that revel in tribute and tradition, this is a slice of cinematic pie that kicks the rules to the curb and keeps you on the edge of your seat by working in the realm of the unexpected. Indeed equipped with a candy-like style and a fondness for unexpectedly swinging between being as unpleasant and as sweet as possible, this is that rare thrill ride that has the distinct talent for walking along a quite insidiously clever line only to then in the third act slam you with a resolution that will certainly leave you feeling like you just got socked in the gut in the best way possible.
The plot is as follows: So when the movie starts and we have our first meeting with our protagonist in the form of a young woman by the name of Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas, she is engaged in the time-honored pastime of drinking at a bar to the point that she is about to ready to pass out….or is she? Actually, as we soon learn, what Cassie is doing is setting a trap that has become a darn near nightly occurrence for her in the form of baiting the worst kind of people you find at a bar into what looks like a easy score only to then find the right moment to give these individuals a moment of brutal honesty. We soon learn that our intrepid heroine has the time to set this up because her life is in an odd self-induced limbo at the moment. A limbo that consists of her having dropped out of med school, living with her loving yet concerned parents, and working at a coffee shop in town for a boss who knows Cassie could be doing more with her life she currently is. Yet, rather than taking these individuals’ care and concern to heart, Cassie instead seems overwhelmingly hooked on an incident that occurred which caused her to ditch her potential as a doctor to the curb. As a result and in a desperate attempt to seek closure once and for all, she decides to cobble together a truly intricate scheme of vengeance on those that she holds personally responsible for her current path in life and ultimately why she is the way she is. Yet, despite thinking she has everything figured out, she soon is blindsided by the sudden reemergence in her life of a former classmate who manages to completely throw her entire plan for a loop and in the process be the first person in a long time to genuinely make her question if what she is doing is right and where she is headed in life as well….
Now, as stated previously, there will be certain points scattered throughout this slice of cinematic pie where you may feel like you have an idea on just where it is headed with such instances including subtle details, intriguing dialogue, or reoccurrences that begin to seem like a pattern more than mere coincidence to name but a few. Yet what, in my opinion, makes this film so enjoyably and refreshingly novel is its talent for constantly being able to surprise you. Yes this movie does utilize certain tropes that may be familiar to you, but usually they are only utilized as tools designed to twist what you are expecting and pull off some truly delightful cinematic misdirection at its finest. Also even though every part of Cassie’s scheme manages to have some percentage of deception at the base to it that is usually wielded dead on at who she aims for it to affect, the film’s script also manages to pile on more layers behind that exterior that you will not be in the know on until the resolution is hitting you smack in the face and smiling at the same time to such an extent that it is both riveting and yet clinical at the same time. To that end, it should be noted that this movie is way more than just a clever little outing; rather it is also quite brutal when it needs to be (which is often incidentally). I mean I know that slices of cinematic pie that often showcase vengeance do so in a way that is to the point and pathos-driven, but this rampage is one that is so sharp that it could cut through anything and its t’d-off energy is riveting in how righteous it is. To that end, we also see that these ingredients have been wonderfully partnered up with a potent reality pill as we get to see not only just how Cassie’s fury at what happened in the past has managed to make her put her life on a long-term pause, but also how in the world around us the roars of fury from the people very much like our heroine in this continue to make our ears ring with each and every guttural exclamation.
Now when looking at this film based off its’ technical merits it should be noted that this film’s script, incidentally penned by the film’s helmer Emerald Fennell, would easily distinguish this film as one of the most riveting debut movies by a film helmer that I have seen in a while, but astonishingly Fennell also happens to possess quite the delightful helmer’s touch that manages to make every scene truly special. Not only that, but her partnerships on this with cinematographer wizard Benjamin Kracun, production designer extraordinaire Michael Perry, and costume maestro Nancy Steiner respectively have managed to result in this movie possessing a striking color palette that hits you head on with its potent usage of red and blue in order to showcase both the ugliness of the narrative, but the beauty in the design in the most brilliant manner possible. Now as for the character of Cassie herself I feel it is safe to say that she is such a riveting and complicated character that you will literally find yourself hooked with her and her mission right from the word go. With that being said, it can also be said that this then is one of the finest performances we have gotten from Carey Mulligan yet. Indeed this is a part that asked her to be equal parts intelligent, furious, and crushed and Mulligan manages to nail every single one of those with both a sense of integrity and immense emotion. Indeed it really is something else entirely to see this heroine coming close to finding happiness again, but at the same time seeing that there is still reluctance and horror lurking within her and it is this kind of dynamic energy that manages to course through the whole of her performance. As for the rest of the cast I cannot think of a single outlier in terms of delivering less than the rest. Yet while everyone else involved certainly manages to bring their A-game to this project and then some, it still cannot be stated enough that what Mulligan brings to this slice of cinematic pie is truly incredible and riveting in all the best ways.
All in all it should be noted that this slice of cinematic pie is one that, ever since I first heard about it literally acquiring rave reviews left and right from a lot of my colleagues who were present for its first screening at the Sundance Film Festival all the way back in January of the infamous year known as 2020, has literally managed to acquire my curiosity (a feat that as anyone who knows me and my movie watching habits is a lot easier said than done). Yet from there my personal curiosity has only been climbing more and more due to the fact that 2020, being the year that it was, caused this film to have to hit the delay button over and over again in its attempts to find a new time at which it could unveil all that it has to offer to the masses. As such, I am actually quite thankful I got to see it in January of 2021 since I view this as the universe’s way of rewarding me for sticking by this film through both the highs and lows of its existence. Thankfully I can also confirm at this time that the film itself is very much worthy of all the talk and hype that had been issued about it. Indeed not only is this one of the finest films that 2020 sought fit to give us, but I can also promise that through the work done on this by both an immensely talented helmer and extremely gifted cast headed by a dynamite performance from Carey Mulligan, this is one top-flight slice of cinematic pie that people will continue to seek out and enjoy for years and years to come. On a scale of 1-5 I give Promising Young Woman “2020” a solid 4 out of 5.