Oscars 2021 Review: Promising Young Woman

A young woman (Carey Mulligan’s Cassie) is on her mission to preying upon men who try to take advantage of her.

And she does so by spending her nights in the clubs, pretending to be drunk and see whether any guy who brings her back to their home would do something to her (read: sex-related).

Apparently, Cassie’s mission has to do with her best friend Nina, who was a victim of rape years ago. Her actual plan to exact vengeance begins when she learns from her ex-classmate, Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) about their fellow classmate Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) is getting married soon. As it turns out, Al was the one responsible for raping Nina in the first place.

With such a premise, you would expect a typical rape-revenge fantasy where Cassie would turn into a one-woman vigilante hunting down on those who have something to do with Nina’s rape. But Promising Young Woman isn’t the kind of a straight-out genre film that recalls like-minded works, say Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978) or Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45 (1981). Emerald Fennell, making her feature-length directorial debut, clearly isn’t interested in treading on familiar ground. Instead, what we have here is how she chose to subvert viewers’ expectations when comes to rape-revenge genre films.

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in "Promising Young Woman"

In other words, it’s going to be a polarising film. The kind that either you like it or hate it but to me, Promising Young Woman falls on the middle ground. Some of Fennell’s subversive approach works well in her favour, namely the way she uses familiar faces (e.g. Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to play against type.

Then, there’s the shocking ending that Fennell opted to go for the uncharted territory. It was a divisive but admittedly bold creative decision. Easily the film’s best and engaging moment, I didn’t expect the entire third act would end up in such a surprising way. At the heart of Promising Young Woman is Carey Mulligan, showcasing a remarkable acting range, where she effortlessly alternate from brash to darkly humorous and at times, emotionally vulnerable in one of her best performances to date.

Despite this is Fennell’s feature-length directorial debut, she proves to be adept at making her film visually appealing with the help of Benjamin Kracun’s vibrant cinematography. Her eclectic choice of pop-infused soundtrack, even going as far as including the likes of Spice Girls’ “2 Become 1” and Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” are oddly spot-on.

And yet, I personally felt Promising Young Woman is an overrated film. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good but not just great enough to warrant such overwhelming praises. Between Mulligan’s captivating Oscar-worthy turn and Fennell’s daring approach to the rape-revenge genre, the movie has one significant problem that bothers me the most. Fennell didn’t bother to address a would-be strong backstory surrounding Cassie and Nina as two childhood friends, which would help establish the former’s emotional connection with Nina after the rape incident. Here, the details on Nina’s past and whatever connected to the rape are heavily implied than shown, which in turn, lessens the impact of the film’s thematic structure about revenge and rape culture.

Total Oscar nominations: 5 (Best Picture, Best Director – Emerald Fennell, Best Actress – Carey Mulligan, Best Original Screenplay – Emerald Fennell and Best Film Editing – Frédéric Thoraval)

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