Religions and ethical systems tend to discourage revenge: when wronged, we’re supposed to turn the other cheek, appeal to our better natures, take the high road, [insert your favorite cliché here]. But it’s nice to think that there is a world where justice prevails, which means that wrongdoers get what’s coming to them. If that state of affairs seldom exists in reality, at least the desire can live on in our imaginations. Thus, one among the many appeals of films like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), whose final twenty minutes are as satisfying as they are terrifying.* If such revenge takes place outside the customary systems of justice, so much the better, because those systems fail systematically in real life as well.
What Cassandra (Carey Milligan), heroine of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, deals in is a near cousin to revenge—she creates scenarios that penetrate the smug self-satisfaction of a number of individuals who like to blame the victims of certain types of crimes, and are certain that such a thing could never happen to them or anyone they care about. The seriousness of these schemes escalates over the course of the film, but they all serve the same end: to force a reassessment and reconsideration of former behaviors and opinions. In the process, Cassandra plays a number of different roles in which she often seems vulnerable, or innocent, or conventionally acceptable, while in fact she is acting as an avenging angel out to even a score whose nature is gradually revealed over the course of the film.
When we first meet Cassandra, a character whose name was not chosen by accident, she is apparently so drunk as to be incapable of looking out for herself. No surprise that a man turns up who is willing to pretend to be kind and see her home, but has other purposes on his mind; he receives quite a surprise when she turns out to be not so drunk after all. These little dramas constitute Cassandra’s night work—days, she works at a coffee shop managed by Gail (Laverne Cox), a job which her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) think is far beneath her. Cassandra was once a medical student, you see, but dropped out due to a trauma which motivates her present-day behavior. The café job is not entirely a loss, however, since it allows her to regain connection with an old classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham), who, unlike her, is now a doctor.
You will probably guess at what Cassie’s traumatic experience was, at least in general terms, before it is officially revealed in Promising Young Woman, in no small part because this type of crime is so common, as is the lack of effective response from official channels as well as from ordinary “nice people” who prefer to look the other way. It’s easy to blame the victim, and most people opt for protecting their comfy place within the system rather than risking it by challenging that system. Above all, if some time has passed and you were not the person who was wronged, the laziest response is to say that’s it’s all in the past and why would you want to drag up that old stuff anyway? Even if there’s video evidence, surely you wouldn’t want to ruin someone’s life or promising career—an attitude that effectively turns the victim into a kind of nuisance that really needn’t be bothered with.
Promising Young Woman is an assured directorial debut for Emerald Fennell, who served as the show-runner for a season of the series Killing Eve and has acted in a number of movies and television productions. The screenplay, also by Fennell, manages the tricky balance between thriller and black comedy, building its case gradually while allowing Mulligan to show off her acting chops as a young woman who can present many faces to the world but always knows exactly who she is and what she is doing.
*Of course, revenge films aren’t nearly as much fun for people who might share an identity, attitude, or behavior pattern with the person or persons on whom the revenge is wrought. A common reaction is defensiveness, which may be expressed in a number of ways. Such is the price of making movies that deal with real, contemporary issues.| Sarah Boslaugh
Promising Young Woman is available for streaming: you can see which services offer it on reelgood.com.