PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2020 but it began to emerge as the talk of the Awards season when it was released on December 25, 2020, in select theaters that happened to be open amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The film features a commanding lead performance from Carey Mulligan that has made her one of the frontrunners to win the Best Actress Oscar and Emerald Fennell, who made her feature film directorial debut on the project, has crafted a film that is a wickedly smart dark comedy that has undertones of a tension-filed thriller that ends up being a pitch-perfect send-up of toxic masculinity. It’s a revenge fantasy but it doesn’t necessarily follow the route you might expect which has made the film, and particularly its ending, the topic of a lot of conversations. I don’t want to give anything away but Fennell goes a long way to show that revenge isn’t pretty and it can have a devastating impact on someone’s life if it goes unchecked. Fennell recently spoke to “Vulture” about her film and she pointed out revenge films such as John Wick, fail to acknowledge the mental anguish that a decent person goes through when they are forced to go to dangerous lengths as revenge for previous wrongs.
Promising Young Woman follows a young woman (Carey Mulligan) who is traumatized by a tragic event in her past that involves her best friend, who was a victim of sex abuse. Cassie is unable to let the matter go because of the event did to her friend and she begins to devote herself to finding and punishing sexual predators. Her plans typically involve her pretending to be so drunk she can’t even stand and seeing what route some of these will take. Are they ones to take advantage of an inebriated female or would they do the right thing and get her a ride home? The film makes a solid case that some men view this as an opening and she has made her mission to punish them in the name of her friend who was victimized. Cassie has a level of control during these revenge excursions but the situations are also unpredictable and a life dedicated to this cause has derailed her own life from advancing much beyond college. She’s 30 and lives at home with her parents. This is has been her sole purpose and now hers is a life unfinished. It’s this very reason that Fennell can’t identify with the revenge journey in a film like John Wick because she feels it avoids the unpleasantness that this journey can bring.
“I mean, John Wick, my favorite of all time, there’s got to come a point where John Wick sits down and watches television and thinks,’F*ck me, I killed a lot of people. Fuck me, what have I been doing with my life lately? Actually, I did like that dog. Don’t get me wrong, it was a really cute dog. But I feel like the 7,000 people I’ve killed…’. And it’s not to say I don’t completely adore John Wick. But I do think that, a bit like romantic comedies, movies like that necessarily end with a moment of triumph. Because the aftermath of this journey, which I think we see here, is incredibly unpleasant.”
I see Fennell’s point but John Wick is also a very stylized and fairly unrealistic action film that really isn’t interested in digging deep into what revenge really does to a person. Fennell’s film is grounded in reality and that’s why it’s so powerful. You buy that these things could happen and the trajectory it makes, and ultimately its destination feels perfectly suited for the story she’s telling. John Wick really isn’t delving into the psychological ramifications of life ruled by revenge. It would certainly be compelling but that’s not why moviegoers are seeing John Wick movies. That being said, see Promising Young Woman as soon as you can because it’s really one of the best films to come out last year and it’s worthy of your attention.