The thriller “Promising Young Woman” may not be the #MeToo-era movie America wanted, but it’s the one we deserve — a heart-stopping, confrontational tale of revenge and retribution.
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, who we first see in a club, apparently too drunk to function. A “nice guy,” Jerry (Adam Brody), offers to help her out by calling her an Uber and escorting her home. First, though, they’ll stop at his place, where he offers her another drink and, when she seems almost unconscious, starts attempting to have sex with her.
“What are you doing?” she mumbles at first. When she asks the question again, it’s in a clear, forceful, and not at all drunk voice. Cassie’s inebriation, Jerry learns too late, was an act, and now he’s going to be immortalized as a tally in her journal — another guy caught trying to take advantage of a defenseless woman.
Eventually, we learn a lot more about Cassie. She’s 30, living with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), and working in a coffee shop. She went to medical school, intent on becoming a doctor — but something happened there, involving her best friend Nina, that prompted her to drop out.
And Cassie has a plan, one that involves a former classmate (Alison Brie), the dean at her former college (Connie Britton), an attorney (Alfred Molina), and finally the male classmate (Christopher Lowell) who … well, you’ll see.
Cassie’s plan gets complicated by an encounter with Ryan (played by comedian Bo Burnham), another former classmate. Ryan, who seems like a nice guy without the quotation marks, asks Cassie out — and, before long, a romance ensues, though Cassie remains guarded about how she spends her evenings.
Writer-director Emerald Fennell — previously best known as the showrunner of the much-talked-about BBC America series “Killing Eve” (and for playing Camilla Parker-Bowles in “The Crown”) — makes an unforgettable debut as a feature filmmaker that’s as stylish as it is scary. Fennell devises some sleek and smart set pieces, as Cassie sets each part of her plan into action, putting the viewer in the uncomfortable position of asking, “Should I be rooting for this woman or not?”
In a solid cast that includes Laverne Cox and Molly Shannon, the standout supporting player is Burnham, who at first offers charming comic relief in the middle of Cassie’s revenge plot. He’s warm, witty and self-deprecating — as fans of his stand-up routine could have guessed — but he’s able to get deadly serious when necessary.
Mulligan’s performance is a revelation. The actress is usually known for playing soft, quietly suffering characters (“An Education,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Suffragette,” to name a few). Here, though, she gives a fierce, take-no-prisoners portrayal of a woman striking back against all who have wronged her.
Mulligan’s best work comes in the last reel, which was one of the most argued-about topics at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie premiered. Fennell’s writing and plotting is razor-sharp throughout, but the ending is a jaw-dropper — and one that puts “Promising Young Woman” in a class by itself.
‘Promising Young Woman’
Carey Mulligan is intense as a woman seeking revenge against predatory men, in this sleek, in-your-face thriller.
Where • Theaters where open.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 25.
Rated • R for strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use.
Running time • 113 minutes.