So because I’m a creature of habit, I’ve been slowly working my way through all the Oscar nominees for best picture. So far the only ones I have not seen are The Father and Minari, but I am going to get to them (eventually). But a movie that surprised me with its nomination was Promising Young Woman. I’m not surprised because it was good, I’m more surprised the Academy Awards picked it because it’s a little too good for them. The Oscars don’t have the best track record when it comes to their nominees and winners. So I’m shocked that out of all the nominees this year they picked one of the few movies that is super accessible, darkly humorous, colorful, and is a great and twisted revenge story. I know it won’t win because of that description, but it’s the thought that counts.
The film introduces us to our main character Cassie (Carey Mulligan) in a bar seemingly so drunk she can barely stand. A strange man takes her back to his apartment and is about to have sex with her when she shows us that she is completely sober. Turns out that she does this every week because she’s kind of a loose cannon. We learn she dropped out of medical school, works in a small coffee shop, still lives with her parents, and is generally a miserable person. Throughout the course of the movie we learn that she’s like this because her best friend, Nina, was sexually assaulted in college. The experience of trying to find help and no one believing her was so traumatizing that she dropped out of school and eventually killed herself. Cassie blames herself for all of this and decides to trust no one. But when she finds out that the man who assaulted Nina is getting married, Cassie decides to launch a revenge plot against all those who didn’t help her best friend. And she slowly works her way up to the man who started all of this.
I’ve gone on and on about deep, meaningful movies and how themes and sub-text are important to understanding a thought provoking story. But, at heart, I’m a simple woman who loves me a good revenge film. Films like Carrie (1976), Oldboy (2003), Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (2003, 2004), and Gone Girl (2014) are just a few of some of my favorite within the revenge subgenre. There’s something so simple, yet satisfying about these types of stories that always keep me entertained. And this movie is no exception as it’s revenge story is smart, slick, and fun as hell. The revenge plot comes pretty early on in the film as Cassie seems to have been planning this for a long time. She has a lot of emotional baggage that she channels into her vengeance plot. While she does seem to hate most men, since she pretends to be drunk and every single one of them tries to take advantage of her in some way, her hatred is more targeted at people who don’t think sexual assault is a big deal. The first two people she targets are two women. One was a friend from college who thought Nina was lying about the assault, and the other is the dean of the college who ignored the problem and let her assailant off the hook. Cassie gets them both in satisfying, yet despicable ways. She gets her old friend drunk and makes her believe she was taken advantage of by the first man we see in the beginning of the film. And she scares the shit out of the dean by insinuating that her daughter is in one of the college dorms with older men, which isn’t true, but that’s insane to insinuate.
But Cassie is never really detestable in these moments. We understand early on that she is doing this because her life was ruined by the systems that let this happen. While she didn’t go through what Nina did, she still had to watch her best friend fall into despair, which ended in death. Cassie was a smart, happy woman at one point. But because she lost the most important person in her life due to people who didn’t care for her and an incompetent system that didn’t help her, she feels betrayed by the world. If the world isn’t going to help out people who need it the most, why should she care about anyone? You are on her side because, while what she does to others isn’t healthy or normal, it feels justified to her and to us because we understand where she’s coming from.
It helps that Mulligan plays Cassie as darkly humorous and even sympathetic at times. I say darkly humorous because while the subject matter is dark, the movie does have a sense of humor. And all the humor is in Cassie’s character and Mulligan’s deadpan performance. The first time we meet Cassie’s love interest, she spits in his coffee in front of him and she doesn’t even feel bad about it. In the hands of a lesser actress this character would have come off as too bitchy or felt more like a teenage girl. But Mulligan plays a woman who looks and sounds beaten down by life and herself. She comes across as unhinged, yet sympathetic because of all the shit she’s been through. And Mulligan comes to life when she enacts her revenge plan as she becomes scary, but fun to watch. But she is never so malicious that we hate her.
One of the best moments that demonstrate this is after Cassie scares the dean to death. She’s so emotionally drained that she stops in the middle of the street as she’s driving home. While she wants her revenge, it’s taking it’s toll on her on an emotional level. Usually this type of character is so focused on revenge that they stay emotionless. But Cassie actually acts like a human would and feels drained in this instance. Of course, stopping in the middle of the road she gets a guy in a truck mad and he starts to yell at her. Then, as if not even thinking, she gets out, takes out a crowbar, and smashes the mans car up. He drives off and immediately after she feels bad and gets upset with herself. This is a great moment for different reasons. We get some catharsis as Cassie smashes this assholes car up in the moment. But it’s a great character moment as we can see how this revenge plot is turning her into a worse person than she was before. And she knows this as she regrets doing what she did. You rarely see that in many revenge movies as this act would be depicted as heroic and we would see her in a positive light. But this film flips that notion on its head and shows the emotional consequences it has for our lead. Mulligan really sells this moment as she goes from emotionally drained, to angry, to upset with herself in the span of less than two minutes. It’s a great moment and a great performance that only gets better as the film goes on.
And I can’t really go on about the rest of the movie because then I would get into spoilers. The film really takes a dark and real turn in the third act that I would dare not spoil. In fact, I feel like I’ve said a little too much in this review. Promising Young Woman is a film you need to kind of go blind into to enjoy it. I know that’s saying a lot because I know a lot of people who either love or hate the ending. I personally love it and think it’s an awesome twist in a story full of them. And I also think it fits with the rest of the film because it is so dark, yet still keeps its sense of humor throughout. But if you do want to see this movie, which I recommend you do if you don’t mind the dark subject matter, then be prepared for the last 20 minutes or so. This is a movie that takes the revenge story and twists it into its own, unique thing.