‘Promising Young Woman’ starts off slow, transforms into brilliance

Though flawed, “Promising Young Woman” is still worth anyone’s time and is one of 2020’s finest films.

By Charlie Recchia

Trigger Warning: The following content includes references to sexual assault.

Sexual assault is such a difficult subject to portray properly in film. Either a film will exploit and fetishize an awful crime or it will brush off the subject. Writer and director Emerald Fennell and her team of wonderful actors find a way to make the subject matter digestible but potent in “Promising Young Woman.”

Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie and a whole lot of character actors, “Promising Young Woman” tells the story of Cassandra, a woman who seeks revenge on behalf of her friend who was sexually assaulted during college. Cassandra, played brilliantly by Mulligan, also moonlights as a vigilante who pretends to be intoxicated to lure predatory men into a psychological “trap.”

Released to critics in 2020 and audiences this year, the film’s popularity and critical acclaim have earned the film four Golden Globe nominations, and for good reason.

The cast is dynamite. Mulligan’s performance brings pain and anger, transforming into a symbol of female solidarity and frustration as the film progresses. Mulligan’s excellent attention to her character's traits makes her performance one that will live forever in my memory banks.

Burnham and Brie also showcase some excellent acting in the supporting character department, providing more deeply flawed and unpredictable archetypes that are just begging for analysis. Burnham plays Cassandra’s sweet but naive boyfriend and Brie plays an old acquaintance from her time in college.

The characters are fleshed-out not only through Fennell’s detailed script but also with excellent uses of licensed music. The film uses only female artists, providing another subliminal layer of female empowerment within the film.

In terms of the film’s visuals, though it is not perfect, there are many good things to note. Everything is shot with bright and welcoming colors, providing an excellent deception tactic to trick the audience into a sense of security.

This is where I run into the film’s first major flaw, and that is how clean everything looks. For such a dirty and sometimes disturbing film, the film never really goes for a dark or intimidating look. This creates a strange contradiction in tone that really took me out of the more shocking moments of the film. I just wish the visual style was differentiated more within the film to keep pace with the film’s tone shifts.

There is one particular scene towards the end where our main character finds horrific footage on a cell phone. The scene is only carried by Mulligan and Brie’s excellent acting, as their portrayals of fear and sorrow are painfully real. However, visuals don’t do anything to invoke disgust or fear with their bright tones and relaxing atmosphere.

I also do not like the first 10-15 minutes of the film. Sure, it does a great job setting up the motivations of the main character and her revenge plot, but it moves too quickly for the tension Fennell is trying to create. This issue is more than worth it, however, as the film’s brilliant tension and shock is multiplied tenfold with every passing minute after this first act.

With some visual flaws and a first act that seems too far detached from the rest of the film, “Promising Young Woman” makes up for it by being one of the most disturbing and eye-opening thrillers of the year. With this being Fennell’s feature-length directorial debut, here’s hoping she has another project that can live up to the potency this film carries.

Rating: 4.5/5

Edited by Chloe Konrad | ckonrad@themaneater.com

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