Carey Mulligan has never played a woman quite like the one she brings to life in Promising Young Woman… but then, few leading actresses have taken on such a stark and uncompromising character. Writer-director Emerald Fennell sets her up as an attractive young woman who is falling-down drunk at a neighborhood bar, badly in need of a friend to help her get home. But that’s just the tease. This is a woman with an agenda.
To reveal much more would be a crime. Promising Young Woman is a female revenge thriller bathed in jet-black comedy. It can easily mess with your head, as it did with mine, and its climax is one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever sat through. I actually found myself writhing in discomfort.
Yet Fennell’s screenplay is utterly compelling. If the characters and their actions are heightened to some degree, they are all recognizably real and superbly cast. Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown play Mulligan’s benign Midwestern parents and Laverne Cox is her boss at a coffee bar. Others who figure in the unfolding narrative include Bo Burnham, Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, and Molly Shannon.
A film like this succeeds or fails on how well it establishes and maintains its tonal changes. First-time feature director Fennell, working from her own screenplay, nails it. (She is better known as an actress; she played Camilla Parker Bowles on The Crown.) There are more than a few surprises in store, for Mulligan and for us as well. She is an ideal choice to play Cassie because in her brief but stellar career she hasn’t developed a singular persona; we can accept her as this lethal character, and she does nothing to make herself likable. That’s a tribute to good writing, careful direction, and an actor’s utter dedication to a juicy role.