Righteous retribution

‘Promising Young Woman’ and the avenging angel of assault

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Carey Mulligan (front) stars as "Cassandra" and Bo Burnham (back) stars as "Ryan“ in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit : Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features
Merie Weismiller Wallace; SMPSP

Cassie’s drunk again, alone in the club and a mess. She can’t find her phone, and all her friends have left. Two guys at the bar imagine who could do what to her in such a state, but a third steps in and offers to get Cassie home safe. He guides her down the stairs and helps her into the Uber. What a gentleman. Then a thought crosses his mind. Would you like to come up for a drink? And he seemed like such a nice guy.

She’s been here before. By the looks of her diary, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends most nights this way, each one ending with a random stranger dragging her back to their place and working her clothes off while she’s passed out. That is until Cassie suddenly comes to — stone sober — and asks her would-be assailant just what their intentions are.

It’s a ruse Cassie’s been working for some time now. Ever since her best friend was raped at a college party, Cassie spends her nights teaching men a lesson in consent. And there’s a nice bit of casting in Cassie’s marks — Adam Brody in the first scene, Christopher Mintz-Plasse in the second — two “nice guys” who built successful acting careers from being loveable and harmless. 

It’s one of the many things writer/director Emerald Fennell has on her mind in Promising Young Woman. There’s also the business of sexual assault, trauma, grief, accountability and revenge, but to dig too deep into those could spoil the fun.

That’s an odd way to describe a revenge story about sexual assault, but Promising Young Woman is as much a comedy as it is anything else, from Cassie’s first pick-up at the club to the wedding that concludes the movie. Fennell even allows actor Max Greenfield to steal more than one laugh from the movie’s darkest moment, and Gail (Laverne Cox), Cassie’s boss at the coffee shop, is never far from a good quip. Then there’s the scene where Cassie’s boyfriend (Bo Burnham) lip-synchs to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” in a pharmacy. It’s all rigorously photographed with an eye for candy-coated symmetry by cinematographer Benjamin Kracun.

The result is complex despite the straightforward story. Even though the final sentence imbues Promising Young Woman with contemporary currency, Fennell keeps the audience on uneven footing and refuses to provide easy answers or unearned triumphalism. By starting her story seven years after the night in question and refraining from flashbacks or visual depictions, Fennell eschews the cinematic rape-revenge conventions that male directors have used over the years to absolve them of exploiting their actresses. Her interest is in the collateral damage of assault. Even better, it complicates the morality of the movie.

From westerns to cop films to comic book heroes, American cinema is obsessed with vigilantism. So much so that the specters of “Dirty Harry” Callahan and Batman invade politics, shape our understanding of retribution and scratch the itch for swift justice unencumbered by legal hurdles and protections. In that regard, Promising Young Woman finds itself in good company.  

On the bill: ‘Promising Young Woman.’ In theaters on Dec. 25.