2020 (March 16, 2021)
Focus Features (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C
Rape and revenge have been explored in many films, including Sudden Impact, Extremities, The Virgin Spring, The Last House on the Left, and Lipstick. There’s satisfaction, if only through fictionalized stories, in seeing perpetrators of horrible crimes get their due. Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman falls into this broad category, but approaches the subject more subtly, without exploitative violence. In fact, the viewer would have had no idea that plot centers on avenging rape until well into the film.
Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a 30-year-old medical school dropout who works by day in a coffee shop and still lives with her parents. Her only friend is her co-worker Gail (Laverne Cox). There seems to be nothing special about Cassie. By night, however, she moonlights as a drunk night club patron in slinky dresses and heavy make-up and endures the demeaning attentions of boorish men until some “nice guy” offers to take her home. When the nice guy takes her to his apartment instead and tries to take unfair advantage of her inebriated condition, she drops the act and her cold sober response strikes panic into the supposed Samaritan.
We think that Cassie is a serial killer and some terrible act of violence will follow, but it never occurs. We learn that she has been traumatized by the rape of her best friend, Nina, by a fellow student when they were in med school. When Nina made an official complaint, friends and the dean of the university (Connie Britton) sided with the rapist, as did many high-end lawyers. As such, Nina dropped out and killed herself. Cassie is now obsessed with avenging this wrong, but in clever, well-planned ways that reflect her methodical thinking and her determination to hold those responsible accountable.
When Cassie meets young pediatrician Ryan (Bo Burnham), she’s charmed by his wit and self-deprecating manner. They go out on a few dates and things appear to be clicking between them until he sees her dressed in her slutty attire and make-up during one of her nighttime prowls and is put off.
Carey Mulligan plays Cassie as an authentic woman rather than a caricature. Cassie is righteous but also pathetic and vulnerable. She is charmed by Ryan and it appears that their budding romance might lead her on a healthier path. Mulligan can be scary, as when she shocks the various “nice guys” who see in her easy sex, and touchingly sweet when she flirts with Ryan in a “meet cute” scene in the coffee shop. She’s a lone crusader attempting in ways she can control to hold accountable those indirectly responsible for the death of Nina.
Director Emerald Fennell, who also wrote the script, provides many twists and turns along the way that build suspense. We sympathize with Cassie for giving up a normal life to seek justice for a friend and admire her resolve. Because the theme of rape is serious, Fennell incorporates humor to provide balance and gives Cassie some funny one-liners without making fun of the actual act of rape. A psychological drama within a revenge fantasy and a rom-com veneer, Promising Young Woman underscores a deadly serious social issue while providing an entertaining story.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Universal Blu-ray release is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The picture is sharp, and details are nicely delineated, such as the decor in Cassie’s parents’ home, textures in clothing, patterns in dresses, and individual strands in hair and wigs. Though the film is serious, director Fennell avoids a dark, somber color palette in favor of a bright, cheerful range of hues, including blue and pink pastels, purples, lemon yellows, and flowery prints on Cassie’s daytime dresses. In Cassie’s nighttime scenes, the colors are bolder and her clothes are form-fitting and sexy. Black levels overall are rich and velvety, and skin tones are natural and pleasant.
The soundtrack is English 7.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Other audio options are Spanish 7.1 DTS-HD, French 5.1 DTS Digital Surround, and DVS (Descriptive Video Service). Optional subtitles include English SDH, Spanish, and French. Dialogue is sharp and clear throughout. Carey Mulligan’s manner of speaking is natural, if somewhat detached, during Cassie’s daytime hours, but slurred and somewhat incoherent at night, when she pretends to be wasted. There’s excellent sound mixing in the night club sequences, with dialogue, ambient crowd noise, and music balanced well to provide the atmosphere of an energy-driven club scene. Sound effects, such as car engines, a glass breaking, and footsteps on a staircase, are sharp. Pop songs heard in background in club scenes include Toxic (arranged by Anthony Willis), Stars Are Blind by Paris Hilton, It’s Raining Men by DeathbyRomy, Uh-Oh by Cyn, and Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby by Donna Missal.
Bonus materials on this R-rated release include 3 brief featurettes and a writer/director audio commentary. A Digital code is included on a paper insert within the package.
Audio Commentary – Writer/director Emerald Fennell notes that some men seeing a woman drunk are initially disgusted but then see opportunity. In casting, she wanted the actors to elicit trust, since the male characters believe they’re saving Cassie from potential harm but are really moving in for the kill. Fennell discusses problems during filming, most relating to locations that had to be switched. The steadicam was used for scenes on the street to make filming easier and quicker. The coffee shop set had to be built because Fennell couldn’t find existing shops that had the right vibe. Ryan is a light romantic character without creepiness. The director wanted to tell the story without providing background information up front. She talks about the themes and her intentions as writer. She worked carefully on the romantic scenes, in which music was very important. Improvisation was encouraged during the dinner scene with Cassie, Ryan, and Cassie’s parents, though the structure as written was maintained. You can feel Cassie’s anger simmering just below the surface. The final scene is disturbing to watch because of its unrestrained brutality, yet the final message is one of hope. Fennell discusses casting, but doesn’t provide much information about the actual filming and post-production. It’s a pleasant track, but most of the time, she’s simply telling us what she’s seeing without really addressing what it was like to function as both writer and director.
A Promising Vision (4:03) – Director Emerald Fennell and actors Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, and Laverne Cox refer to the film as “a movie about a woman who is dealing with a terrible trauma but… also happens to be yearning for something… more normal.” The film examines behavior that has unfortunately become normal.
Two-Sided Transformation (3:16) – Fennell discusses why she wanted Carey Mulligan for the role. The character’s day life had to project “I’m fine,” but at night she takes on a different personality. Cassie’s identities change from night to night. Mulligan enjoyed “playing with hair and make-up” to create her alter egos. Fennell wanted the film to be stylish but also realistic.
Balancing Act (3:50) – The tone of the film is a “horrifyingly dark comedy” as well as a thriller. The script attracted great actors to the project. The lightness balances the heavy subject matter. Actor Molly Shannon notes that “comedians can usually find the balance of drama and comedy.” It’s a film about consent. Often, friendly-looking people cross the line and it’s unexpected. They don’t think of themselves as bad guys. Having levity throughout the film helps mitigate the disturbing story. Every role in the film is good. Fennell notes, “It’s staggering to me that I was able to assemble such a cast.”
Promising Young Woman is a film about contradictions. Everything about the characters, production design, and costuming entails opposites. Some of these opposites point to how, in subtle ways, it’s easy to miss red flags certain behaviors would raise if they came from other people. The film shows the ways women are deceived, betrayed, and victimized by men, but comes to a conclusion where the main characters all face the consequences of their actions.
– Dennis Seuling