Once upon a time, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was a med school student at the top of her class, but dropped out after a mysterious event and cut ties with everyone from her academic life. These days, she works in a coffee shop and lives at home with well-meaning parents who urge her to get her life back on track, and spends her free time doing little else besides stalking would-be rapists. Yes — you read that correctly.
Every week, Cassie goes out to a bar and pretends to be so hammered she can barely keep her eyes open. Inevitably, it doesn’t take long for some self-proclaimed “nice guy” to wander over and check on her (in the film’s opening sequence, it’s Adam Brody), and before long he’s loading her into a cab and whisking her away to his apartment. But just as he starts to slide the panties off the barely conscious woman in his bed, Cassie reveals the truth: she’s sober as a judge, the whole scenario was a setup, and this predatory prick is in a world of trouble.
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman is a rage-fueled takedown of rape culture. It would have been satisfying enough to watch Mulligan — in a fearsome, take-no-prisoners performance — scare the bejesus out of douchebags like Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s pretentious, coked-up aspiring novelist, who justifies trying to force himself on her by insisting “I thought we had a connection!” But Fennell and her pissed-off protagonist have something far more ambitious in mind — the day of reckoning is coming not just for the men, but for an entire system of enablers and apologists.
When a chance meeting with an old classmate (Bo Burnham) allows the notion of romance to enter her life, Cassie tries to let go of her past, and for a time it looks like she might succeed. But the invocation of a specific name causes painful memories to come flooding back, and Cassie’s ultimate revenge is set in motion, with a list of targets that include a gossiping former confidant (Allison Brie), a dean (Connie Britton) more concerned about “ruining a young man’s future” than taking a sexual assault claim seriously, and a mudslinging lawyer (Alfred Molina) who destroyed a victim’s credibility. And that’s all before the film’s jaw-dropping third act, which goes to a shockingly dark place that drives its message home like a blow from a sledgehammer.
Throughout Promising Young Woman, Fennell makes some remarkably bold choices, with each tension-filled encounter usurping the last (Carrie’s tête-à-tête with the dean is especially well-crafted). It’s a scathing indictment of the systemic disregard for victims of sexual assault, and of a culture that tries to silence women — or worse, to paint them as complicit in their own attacks by blaming them for the clothes they wore, or the amount of alcohol they consumed — all the while sweeping things under the rug or shrugging it off with a “boys will be boys” mentality.
It’s clear that Fennell is having none of that bullshit, and Promising Young Woman holds up a mirror to the hypocrisy, forcing us to confront the flaws in the system. Anchored by a dynamite turn from Mulligan, it’s a fierce, fiery battle cry of a film, one that seeks to hold accountable everyone whose actions — or inaction — contributed to the destruction of a woman’s life. It’s urgent, it’s necessary, and it’s incredible.