Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is a woman on a mission: every weekend, she goes to a bar and pretends to be blackout drunk. Inevitably, a self-described "nice guy" will take advantage of her nonconsensual state and bring her back to his place with the intent to rape her. Just before he can commit the deed, however, Cassie reveals herself to be fully sober and in control, and then...
Well, we're never exactly sure what Cassie does to the countless creeps whose names she writes down in her little notebook, or why she chooses black ink for some, red ink for others. It's one of many ambiguities in a film that asks, "How much do you believe what a woman tells you?"
We soon learn that Cassie's thoughts are with an old friend named Nina. Although the details of what happened to Nina are revealed over time, we can guess early on that a) Nina is dead, and that b) she was the victim of sexual assault. Cassie, then, has become an avenging angel, winning justice for Nina one scumbag at a time.
Cassie's routine is interrupted one day when Ryan (standup comic-turned filmmaker Bo Burnham), an old classmate from med school, chances upon the coffeehouse where she works and drums up the courage to ask her out. Moved by his respectful attitude, his good humor, and his willingness to take things slowly, Cassie consents to go out with him. But when Ryan mentions that another old classmate (Chris Lowell) – who we sense is the person behind Nina's trauma and death – is back in town, Cassie quietly decides to seek revenge against everyone who had wronged poor Nina years earlier.
Promising Young Woman is interesting but amateurish. Had the 2020 pandemic not pushed back so many prestige pictures into 2021 and beyond, we wouldn't be talking about the multiple Oscar nominations this movie has received; it's simply not that good. (The Assistant is a much better 2020 film about sexual assault and male privilege.) While I admit that I've spent more time thinking about it than I have about movies I liked much more, those thoughts are half haunted and half frustrated.
Fennell is an accomplished actor and TV writer; this is her first feature as director. As such, Promising Young Woman's awkward tone feels like the typical trial-and-error work of an inexperienced filmmaker, rather than intentional. There is something not quite real about its world: it takes place in a nameless Ohio city yet is obviously shot around Los Angeles. It's set in contemporary times, yet the kitschy house where Cassie lives with her sixty-year-old parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) is frozen in the 1960s – as are the parents themselves. Does Fennell, who is British, think this is what Middle America looks like? If I'm being generous, I'd say Promising Young Woman has a dreamlike feeling, almost reminiscent of Drive (also with Carey Mulligan), another film about American life made by a European outsider.
My main problem with the film is that Fennell's screenplay plays out like a mission statement, not as a character study: Cassie barely exists as an actual character; she is mostly a cinematic stand-in for female outrage. It's not giving much away to say that most of her acts of revenge are strictly psychological – she gives terrible people a fright, then makes them feel bad with a stern talking-to. I agree with what Fennell's trying to say, I just don't think she's saying anything new or challenging.
On the upside, Mulligan is committed, the soundtrack is offbeat, and there's a scene in the third act that is legitimately devastating. And I have to give some kudos to a film that references The Night of the Hunter not once but twice. There will be people who will love Promising Young Woman, and it will surely engender think pieces for years to come. But I don't think it lives up to its, well, promise.