Culture

Film

‘Promising Young Woman’

By Elizabeth Flux
In Emerald Fennell’s furious, uncomfortable film, clever casting spotlights the ‘nice guys’ of pop culture

Carey Mulligan (left) as Cassandra and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil in Promising Young Woman. Image courtesy of Focus Features

The joy and risk of meeting a stranger comes from the fact that the past they carry is invisible. Once someone is known to us, we can’t help but see, in their face, other stories of their life.

In the opening scenes of Promising Young Woman a drunken woman sits alone in a nightclub, seemingly oblivious to the attentions of three suited men. They know nothing about her other than she is intoxicated and vulnerable. Two of the men clearly see it as an opportunity, and as their conversation moves from joking speculation to darker intent, the third man steps in. He checks to see if she is alright, and tries to organise a safe way for her to get home. But her phone is missing and she is slurring her words, so he makes a decision; he’ll leave now too, and drop her off on his way.

Partway through the car trip something in him shifts; perhaps he looks more closely at her, or is charmed by something she said. Or maybe, deep down, unknown even to him, this was his intention all along. Whatever it is, instead of dropping her off, he instructs the driver to take them both to his own house. As he manoeuvres the reluctant and confused woman into his bed, as he shushes her vague protests, as the camera moves overhead to show her with her arms stretched out like Jesus on the cross, she suddenly sits bolt upright, and, in a now perfectly clear voice – accusatorily, confidently – asks the man what he is doing.

She was never drunk. The tables have turned.

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman is a film with hefty things to say about rape culture and the patriarchy while also being a darkly funny and entertaining story that doesn’t fit neatly into one category.

The titular promising young woman is Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), a medical school dropout who we slowly learn had her life derailed following the assault of her childhood best friend, Nina. She now spends her days working in a coffee shop and her evenings in sketchy bars, pretending to be drunk, in order to lure in and trap the kind of men who would take advantage of women unable to say no.

Having both written and directed the film, Fennell is able to keep a steely command on every aspect, making sure every shot, every song, every line feeds into the larger messaging of Promising Young Woman.

Not one second of the film is wasted, and every inclusion feels deliberate. The bubblegum colours of Cassandra’s daytime life contrast with the dark and grimy night-time world she chooses to occupy. Religious imagery is scattered throughout. Cassandra as a Christ figure. Cassandra standing against a background that forms a halo. Even her name carries with it an extra level of weight. The Cassandras of both Greek tragedy and Promising Young Woman are cursed to see the world as it truly is and yet not be believed when they speak out about it.

It’s a devastating triumph of a film. I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop talking about it. And a big part of that is because Promising Young Woman reaches beyond the usual parameters of a movie, blurring the line between the film and the world it is holding a mirror up to.

As a work of art, it is already exceptional. It tells a furious, uncomfortably true and familiar story in a way that feels neither preachy nor stale. It’s not a revenge thriller. It’s not a horror. It’s not drama. It’s simply all-too-universal truths distilled down into one woman’s tragedy.

The script is tight and the cinematography a masterful navigation of candied light and hard-edged dark – but one of the most striking and effective facets of the film is the way casting is deployed to unusual effect. Fennell is an actor too, most recently seen playing Camilla Parker Bowles on Netflix’s The Crown and she taps into the fact that actors don’t get a blank slate with every new film; irrespective of their ability to morph themselves into someone new, they still carry their best-known roles with them.

Cassandra is played by Carey Mulligan who up until now has been best known for playing characters who just let life buffet them along. She has been Daisy in Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby, a character who is cruel in her spinelessness; she has been Kathy in the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, who mutely accepts her doomed fate. The Mulligan that viewers have been trained to expect is soft and gentle – an expectation that Fennell harnesses, weaponises and subverts.

In the same vein, almost all of the men Cassandra encounters on her mission are played by actors who have previously portrayed beloved but increasingly problematic characters on film and television. They include Adam Brody (Seth Cohen from The OC), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin from Superbad), Max Greenfield (Leo from Veronica Mars and Schmidt from New Girl) and Chris Lowell (Piz from Veronica Mars). In addition, Cassandra’s parents are played by Jennifer Coolidge (Stifler’s mum from the American Pie films) and Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption and Billions).

The casting choices in Promising Young Woman extend beyond the normal conventions. It isn’t just a matter of who is right for the role now. It’s who is right for the role now, and also what impact their previous body of work will have on how viewers engage. 

When we see Cassandra being preyed on by men who have played loveable but questionable characters from pop culture, it throws open those films and shows too, making us question what role these works play in shaping societal attitudes. As a teenager I rooted for Seth Cohen as he pined after, mildly stalked and manipulated his high-school crush into having a relationship with him. I watched Veronica Mars while barely blinking an eye at the twenty-something deputy sheriff pursing a relationship with the teenaged protagonist. I felt bad for the “nice guys” who didn’t get the women they felt they deserved. I quietly internalised the subconscious messaging of Superbad, a film where one of the key comedic scenes centres around the idea of menstruation being simultaneously horrifying, hilarious and shameful.

The opening sequence of Promising Young Woman is dread-filled enough as it is. But the fact that the third man, the “nice guy” is played by Adam Brody adds another level of horror. This could be Seth Cohen in an alternate timeline. Hell, it could be Seth Cohen post-divorce from his high-school sweetheart. It brings an already frighteningly familiar idea even closer to home.

This is a film that doesn’t ever spell out what it is railing against; it doesn’t have to. Fennell simply puts together everyday scenes and uncomfortable truths in a way that makes you rage and grieve over unchanging attitudes and injustices that we all see, all the time, on both a small and a large scale.

The truth of the film is the truth we see every time there’s an article about the latest iteration of Brock Turner, whenever Roman Polanski receives a new accolade, or a performer who’s had his career “ruined” by “accusations” makes a comeback – in the world we currently live in, if forced to choose, a promising young woman will always be worth less than a promising man.  

Elizabeth Flux

Elizabeth Flux is an award-winning writer and editor whose fiction and nonfiction work has been widely published.

@ElizabethFlux

Carey Mulligan (left) as Cassandra and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil in Promising Young Woman. Image courtesy of Focus Features

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