Revenge thriller, hold the revenge
It seems fair to judge Promising Young Woman as a “message film” when that’s how it’s so clearly positioned itself. On that basis, it comes off as a hollow production; there’s very little shading or depth to the #MeToo reckoning, just the same button pushed over and over for 90 of its 105 minutes (more on that last 15 in a sec). Most of the revelations are projected from the first two scenes. And there are no ripples or surprises to Cassie’s grief and trauma: it’s simply an inescapable blot that weighs down her life.
As a revenge film, it’s not up to snuff either, although I think it gets a bit further here. Carey Mulligan is lights-out at every wrinkle of the lead role, able to play angry and heartbroken in all sorts of different flavors as each moment requires. But the very nature of Cassie’s scheme is anti-cathartic; to what purpose, I’m not sure. I would buy the idea that her scheme is psychological vengeance rather than physical, except we don’t relish in any of her victim’s discomfort for more than about 60 seconds at a time, at least until we hit the story’s proper arc.
The film’s handful of truly great scenes involve Cassie tracking down loose threads from the trauma from her younger years. The exchange with the college dean is terrifically tense (though I wish the dean was maybe like 5% less vile and thus more believable), while the lunch with Madison would have been just as great if Alison Brie was a better dramatic actor. (Margot Robbie produced the film; surely she could have appeared for Brie’s two scenes.)
I also really liked the arc with Ryan (Bo Burnham) until his last few scenes. It’s the one plot thread in which the film seems interested in digging through the complexities of systemic rape culture and all of its little enablers rather than the obvious big bads. In other words, he’s one of the only characters we can’t immediately characterize as “hero” or “villain,” though I had my guesses. Ryan’s such a human character in the film that it really lands the idea that the complacency of otherwise decent people is the knotty root of sexual abuse. Of course, even he ends up being so unsympathetic by the end that it undoes the lone ambivalent character in the film.
The casting of the men, in general, is incredible. It must be intentional that so many of the actors are from iconic late-00s shows and films, several of which lazily trafficked in rapey cliches from party “hookup” culture that this movie tears down. You’ve got McLovin and Seth Cohen from properties I assume I don’t need to name; Schmidt from New Girl and Dell from Veronica Mars. Burnham himself is a former YouTube wunderkind who made his name with edgy joke-songs; I haven’t revisited them in awhile, but I’m sure he had some problematic one-liners in there.
Perhaps the biggest treat of the film is its look. Debut director Emerald Fennell’s storytelling chops aren’t fully developed: her instincts are clearly telling her that this should be trashier than the script permits it tobe, and she is obviously itching to go full chaos goblin with the twisty soap — which is why I’m so excited to see Saltburn — but she at least makes the presentation brightly colorful and snappy, with clever framing and imagery that’s eye-catching but not too on-the-nose.
So what about those final fifteen minutes? (Spoilers ahoy.) I understand the narrative motivation behind the twist — absolution through death and burning, Cassie bearing the weight of all women’s suffering as if a Christ-like figure; bringing down the boys club the only way she can, self-immolation — and yet killing the protagonist only further undercuts some of the core #MeToo concepts: victimhood here is a scarlet letter that leaves no room for a healing or shading until death. Feels cheap and bad.
(Purportedly, Fennell initially wanted to end the film with Cassie’s body burning, which wouldn’t have solved all of the problems, but would have been much more of a bleak, “fuck you” exclamation point that I would have respected more than the final act of revenge-beyond-the-grave we get as the conclusion instead.)
But, as a piece of melodramatic, pulpy plotting — trash as I said earlier — the ending has some verve and made me wish I wasn’t watching a message movie. This could have been some high operatic bullshit instead of a confused grace note on a heavy-handed film whose considerable strengths and strong moments can’t overcome its problems.