Promising Young Woman Review: A Frightening and Fulfilling Revenge Thriller

Recent years have seen critics and audiences alike waxing poetic about what does or doesn't constitute a horror film, due in large part to filmmakers like Jordan Peele, Jennifer Kent, and Ari Aster expanding the scope of what it means to deliver a horrifying narrative. In this regard, Promising Young Woman might not necessarily be considered a genre film in all circles, despite it seeing our lead character taking out violent vengeance against anyone who accepts her bait. Surely this core premise should be enough to deem it an unsettling experience, though it's in its reflection of the real-world culture of toxic masculinity, sexual assault, and the fragility of the male ego being what makes the experience far more disturbing than any of the film's narrative reveals. This all culminates in Promising Young Woman, writer/director Emerald Fennell's debut feature, one of the year's best horror films in all its skin-crawling glory.

After dropping out of medical school, Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is perceived as having squandered all her potential, living at home and resorting to working at a small cafe, with no real friends and certainly no romantic candidates. This detour that her life has taken is due in large part to spending her evenings feigning intoxication, allowing "good guys" to help her out of the bar, only to then confront them as they attempt to assault her. When former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) arrives with seemingly honorable intentions, Cassandra's entire outlook on her future changes and challenges her ideals.

In the world of revenge thrillers, you rarely see the use of the word "nuance." More straightforward horror films like I Spit on Your Grave or Last House on the Left never shy away from depicting the horrible violence enacted upon their victims, while they also embrace the righteous vengeance the perpetrators suffer. The same can be said in action-oriented spectacles, with films like Death Wish or John Wick establishing the emotional impact of a devastating loss so the audience cheers for the subsequent brutality enacted by our hero.

Promising Young Woman, on the other hand, masterfully conveys the emotional impetus for Cassandra's journey without ever having to depict it for the audience, nor does it deliver the fulfilling physical punishments that the assailants wholly deserve. Fennell exquisitely finds the restraint to deny giving in to the viewer's bloodlust, yet somehow makes these ambiguities feel all the more satisfying. She tells without showing, making for all the richer of an experience.

Even while tackling intense subject matter, handling sexual assault with the sophistication it deserves, Fennell still finds countless opportunities to deliver sequences of genuine delight. Surely some of the chuckles the film elicits are borne from the juxtaposition of the ways in which the script handles the tension of certain scenes, while countless others are thanks to the clever script and alluring performances. Aided in large part by key musical selections and plenty of bright, bubbly colors, it's easy to immerse yourself in this world and soak up every moment of joy in hopes of distracting ourselves from the pure terror of a world in which an unending stream of assailants manage to escape the fate they so rightfully deserve.

Throughout her career, Mulligan has given a number of compelling performances, yet has largely avoided the acclaim earned by many of her peers, thanks in large part to how effortless she makes every performance look. From An Education to Drive to Shame to Wildlife, she delivers consistently complex and authentic performances, but does so with so much earnesty, she rarely ever looks like she's acting. With Promising Young Woman, she continues to wow audiences with her natural charm, yet it will arguably be her breakout performance, as she delivers not only an endearing charisma, but also a quiet and subtle, seething vengeance underlying many scenes. She fully leans into those moments of tension and, every scene in which she appears, she commands not only her environment, regardless of how vulnerable she might be, but also commands every inch of the screen. Burnham's performance is engaging enough, but it's all in service of Mulligan, making it impossible to take your eyes off of her.

Complicating the entire trajectory of the film is that, while other revenge thrillers have distinct and identifiable targets, Promising Young Woman has specific perpetrators, but essentially aims to dismantle the patriarchy. Much like the actions of Cassandra, the film doesn't aim to offer clear-cut endings for an entire culture, yet would rather ignite self-reflection in the audience. Abuse and assault, whether it be emotional or physical, isn't merely a case of black and white, it's an entire spectrum that can haunt its victims for their entire life. This means that, regardless of what fate various characters suffer, no viewer will leave the film the same person they were when they entered the experience.

Fennell and Mulligan have found perfect foils in one another, with Promising Young Woman hopefully kicking off a series of collaborations, as it proves they are both complete powerhouses. Horror fans who prefer broader and more blatant discomfort might feel frustrated with this "revenge thriller," all while the rest of us are given a rich, nuanced, delicate, and inspiring experience. This meticulously crafted and harrowing journey makes for one of the year's best films of any genre.

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Rating: 5 out of 5

Promising Young Woman hits select theaters on December 25th.