Promising Young Woman is defined by its televisual tendencies. It only makes sense. First time director Emerald Fennel sharpened her screenwriting pen on the small screen, on the mega-successful programs The Crown and Killing Eve (where she made her name as the showrunner for the second season). Her new feature seeks to highlight femininity outside the predominant lens of the male gaze. Promising Young Woman proposes that, were a woman to seek revenge, they would not go about it in a way that would please an audience full of promising young men. Instead, they would seek their sweet revenge to the score of a saucy orchestral rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” or Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning.”
Cassie (a smart, sexy, and cool Carey Mulligan) used to be a Promising Young Woman. Back in med school, she had bigger aspirations. Now, she works at a coffee shop and her extracurricular activities are limited to having awkward dinners with her parents and punishing abusive men. At night, she goes on the prowl, with every affectation and signal that she is wasted and ready to be taken home. When the men get her home and inevitably make a move, her eyes dart back to life, and she gives them a taste of their own medicine. Much of what she does is left to implication but you know she’s gotten revenge when her walk of shame is complemented by blood spattered clothes. Stumbling back into her life is former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham, an ideal build-a-boyfriend) who is persistent and too nice. Maybe this one is different. His involvement stirs up shadier members of Cassie’s past, initiating a provocative and unputdownable sequence of events.
Despite a magnetic centerpiece performance and the televisual movement that would make an easy binge-watch in series, Promising Young Woman falters in its overall structure. It sets up Cassie’s forays into revenge but they are ultimately of little consequence. They show us that she must get revenge for a past that has been inflicted on a long-lost friend, but these flings only show that she’s willing to get revenge, and are immaterial to the ongoing plot. There are no immediate consequences for Cassie, until she gets a big one later on. We float through the story with her, mostly unconcerned that anything can go badly, in its easygoing nature, instilled by the reliance on pop music, although it hides a sharp, dark edge, beneath the surface.
There are dozens of revenge films like it, although most will have an objectifying male gaze about them. The utility of Promising Young Woman is to keep the sex appeal without exploiting its characters. It does right by that method, developing a story that honors its lead, in particular. Occasionally, the film produces awkward cuts. Not every event seems to naturally lead to the next, in the edit. The mission statement is worthwhile, to present a re-lensing of rape culture in the revenge film, but the execution is decidedly only fine.
It’s lucky timing that Promising Young Woman will likely be viewed on televisions. It most aptly fits the format where it will be consumed. While all films would benefit from a theatrical experience, some suit their context of space, and genuinely feel right for the platform. Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham are two good enough reasons to see the film. They are both pretty great in an otherwise by-the-numbers revenge picture. For all its basic pop music appeal, the film is a pop song of a movie: it’s simple; immediately gratifying; and won’t require much significant thought after viewing it. By the end, you’re already scrambling for a “watch next episode” button that doesn’t exist.