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'Promising Young Woman' Review | Superhero film in disguise is a jaw-dropping stunner

Carey Mulligan is a sinister soul taking down bad men, but this isn’t your normal revenge flick
Credit: Focus Features

ST. LOUIS — Midway through "Promising Young Woman," Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is putting on makeup. As she finishes applying her lipstick, the urge to wipe it across her face, akin to The Joker, rushes over her. She does it on both ends, pulling the red sticky paste into a wide and rather mischievous smile. One could easily say she is a female riff on the Joker: not as anarchic as Harley Quinn, but definitely a good soul who broke bad for a reason.

It's that vital reason that Emerald Fennell wisely keeps camouflaged for the majority of the film, a hint to oncoming potential viewers that this isn't your grandpa's revenge flick. It's actually a revenge fantasy classic. Yeah, you heard me. "Promising Young Woman" goes in directions that thrillers with supplemental dramatic beats rarely go. It's edgy, inventive, highly original, and ends with an absolute bang. This will be the film future filmmakers are inspired by and do their best not to copy. It's a groundbreaking exercise in payback that veers away from the familiar road of fists, bullets, and blood-splattered walls.

There is good reason Cassandra is going after men at nightclubs, unassuming predators who refer to themselves as nice guys right up until the moment the front door to their apartment closes. Consider this film a condemnation of not only the life-destroying action that rapists inflict, but the excuses they make in the days, weeks, months, and even years after the fact. If you're going to make a film that has #MeToo flavoring all over it, please lean into it like Fennell does here.

If you think I have given you too much of the plot, think again. You know nothing, Jon Snow. Along with a thrillingly alive lead performance from Mulligan-who has never been and may never be better than she is here-Fennell has delivered the superhero film we didn't think was possible but was direly needed in 2020. A film for the times that doesn't beat you over the head with its message, instead sneaking up and flooring you with its moral, and it's a sledgehammer of a message. While we'd love to think of everything in this film as being fictional and the elements behind Cassandra's rage as being arbitrary, that's painfully not the case.

All you have to do is look at "Athlete A" on Netflix, or any other young female abuse documentary. It happens way too much, but instead of just taking that kettle corn setup and crafting an enjoyable action thriller-type, Fennell goes in the other direction and burns the candle nice and slow. "Promising Young Woman" is anything but quiet, but it's not gratuitous and it never goes over the top. There is a hyper-stylized foundation, but it's purely a weapon for the storytelling device here.

One of 2020's greatest attributes in film has been the ability to let the UNSAID thrive onscreen. Let me explain. Just because words are being spoken doesn't mean a whole lot of juicy info is being given in a film like this. It's nice when the plot and its details unfold at a realistic pace, instead of being dumped onto our lap at once. There are expositions throughout the film that inform the audience what may have happened, but the whole deck of cards isn't revealed in the first 30 minutes. Also, certain things that appear onscreen and are important don't cry for your eyes or attention at first. A facial expression, movement from an actress, or the particular tell that doesn't require a dialogue recap.

Cassandra's motives become quite clear within the first 10 minutes, but Fennell, along with expert cinematography from Benjamin Kracun, only allows you to see what he wants you to see. That's what sets this film apart from others in the revenge genre. The patience, reluctance, and overall precise plan in how "Promising Young Woman" was crafted.

The cast is phenomenal, from top to bottom. You may know Bo Burnham from his standup comedy or his wonderful directorial debut, "Eighth Grade," last year, but he truly steps up his game here. When you can trade shots with the uber-talented Mulligan and don't stick out like a sore thumb, the world can be your oyster. But his casting, like so many others, is a wise ploy by the writer-director.

There's a reason you see nice guy types such as Burnham, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and Chris Lowell parading the film. The plot and overall makeup of the film isn't the only thing going against type here; the casting follows suit. Just look at Jennifer Coolidge, known to most of the movie fan world as Stifler's mom in the "American Pie" films, has a nice serious turn as Cassandra's mother. Clancy Brown, who is known to play domineering men in "Shawshank Redemption" and "Billions," is the doting dad here.

Molly Shannon usually adds extra levels of neurotic energy to a film or television show, but here she slows it way down to expose the pain in a mother's voice. It's illuminating, but not too surprising. Laverne Cox is a joy to see as Cassandra's best friend and employer, the one who continuously wonders why a former med student is working for her. As Ledger's Joker would say, it's all part of the plan.

At just under two hours, "Promising Young Woman" contains the biggest jaw-dropper of an ending I have seen this year. I could confidently say zero films have this much of a punch at the very end. It's the kind of resolution that carries more power the more one thinks about it, and a finale that will inspire weeks of conversation. It's a daring move for a mainstream film to go for broke like Fennell and Mulligan do here, but it's a reminder that original thought in filmmaking isn't dead yet.

What other film could make a Paris Hilton song relevant again by using it in a pharmacy date dance sequence? This one. Keep a look out for a wicked cover of Britney Spears' "Toxic" and other gems on the soundtrack, which easily ranks among the best collections of music in film this year.

Mulligan anchors everything. From the moment we see her laying across a sofa in a strobe light-disarming nightclub scene to the final scene, she's in control. It's a virtuoso performance that doesn't include a single false note and leads us down a path that can zig and zag.

If the film is guilty of one thing, it's a shifting tone that doesn't let up. But one could label that as a purposeful tool put in place by Fennell. There are romantic parts and thrilling parts, and far more cold-blooded dramatic sequences. "Promising Young Woman" keeps you off balance and unsure of what's coming next. That's its greatest attribute. Taking the familiar and making it seem brand new again.

Bottom Line: This is not a film you wait on. This is a film you can't wait for. I implore you to watch it. Find the message, shout about it, and then watch the film again.