Cassie is only 30 years old but it appears as she’s permanently shelved her dreams, has retreated into a protective emotional cocoon and is barely present in her own life. Having dropped out of medical school despite being a star student, Cassie still lives with her parents, displays little professional ambition, doesn’t go out on dates and seems to have only one friend: her boss at the coffee shop where she works as a barista.
Not that Cassie never goes out. One night a week, she hits the town by herself and appears to get so hammered she nearly blacks out. Inevitably, some random, sleazy guy on the prowl will make the moves on Cassie and take her back to his place and try to have sex with her, even though he believes her to be intoxicated and she’s telling the guy to stop, please stop.
If he doesn’t stop, he’s about to feel the wrath of Cassie.
“Promising Young Woman” is a smart, provocative, pitch-black dark comedy and revenge movie with an astonishingly powerful, deeply layered performance by Carey Mulligan as Cassie, who exacts instant, vigilante justice on the predatory creeps who try to take advantage of her when she’s pretending to be highly intoxicated. It’s a #MeToo fantasy of sorts, with the anti-heroine methodically destroying the lives of the men who try to wrong her in present day — and eventually the men who committed unspeakable atrocities to her best friend Nina back in college, leaving Nina in such pain she dies by suicide. Writer-director-producer Emerald Fennell (who is also an actor and plays Camilla Parker Bowles on “The Crown”) delivers a sensational first feature film with this well-crafted, bold, visually stunning and emotionally resonant gem.
Mulligan is spectacularly good at playing characters within the character, as Cassie alters her physical appearance and her personality to adapt to various situations and locales. At home with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), who are understandably worried about Cassie’s state of mind, Cassie plays the part of the closed-off, antisocial daughter. At work, Cassie engages in snappy banter with her supervisor and best friend Gail (Laverne Cox, always terrific). When Cassie goes out, she plays the part of the lonely and drunk party girl looking for a good time. And she takes on a fourth persona — that of a well-adjusted young woman who is starting to get her life back together and even thinking about returning to med school — after a former college classmate named Ryan (Bo Burnham), who is now a pediatric surgeon, happens into the coffee shop one day and immediately begins flirting with her, which eventually leads to an actual and seemingly healthy romance.
Cassie and Ryan establish a true connection and begin to fall in love, and certain scenes play like a mainstream rom-com, e.g., when they perform an impromptu karaoke of the execrable pop song “Stars Are Blind” by Paris Hilton in a pharmacy. (The song is awful and it’s a revelation that ANY two people in the world would actually know all the words, which is what makes the scene so endearing.) But Cassie is still haunted by the past and continues to orchestrate scenarios by which she can confront a number of individuals connected to Nina’s tragedy, from the now-wife (Alison Brie) of one of the rapists to the silk-stocking attorney (Alfred Molina) who defends sexual assault suspects to the medical school dean (Connie Britton) who swept the scandal under the rug in order to protect her reputation and the reputation of the college. Each one of these scenes grows increasingly tense, almost uncomfortably so for the viewer, as Cassie eventually drops the pleasantries and goes in for the emotional kill.
In the final act, “Promising Young Woman” comes close to crushing plausibility as Cassie embarks on one last mission to destroy the lives of every single person who attacked Nina and every single person who stood by and laughed as Nina was repeatedly raped. She doesn’t want to hear any excuses about everyone being young and drunk and caught up in the moment, she doesn’t want to hear about how these people have become responsible members of the community, with solid jobs and good families. Justice will be served and if dozens of lives are shattered beyond repair, Cassie is good with that.