Sexual violence and misogyny have for so long provided mainstream film and television with a wellspring of entertaining tropes, that when writers and directors set out to examine their workings directly, they mistrust flamboyance. Some of the most successful recent treatments of the subject are characterized by a restraint that borders on austere: Unbelievable wrestles crime drama into a rigorous, sensitive feminist form; Kitty Green’s tense, miniaturist The Assistant restricts itself to the perspective of the titular employee of a Weinstein-like figure we never see head-on, demonstrating in detail how power obscures its abuses, mutes and muffles all opposition. Jay Roach’s Bombshell showed the pitfalls of attempting a glitzier, more fun approach. When Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody turned rape-revenge into exuberant comedy horror in Jennifer’s Body back in 2009, nearly no one got the joke for most of a decade.
Yet writer-director Emerald Fennell, best known till now as an actor and the showrunner on the second season of the glam-assassin series Killing Eve, blasts into this territory with delicious nonchalance. Her feature debut, Promising Young Woman, confronts what’s often called rape culture through a brilliantly queasy blend of genres: revenge thriller, social satire, farce, romantic comedy. “What is this, the ’90s?” a young man jokes to a friend who appears to have committed an especially cheesy kind of sex crime. Fennell’s film revels in a winking, sleazy glamour that for me recalled those thrillers of the 1980s and ’90s that capitalized on the sexual and professional anxieties of their time, like Disclosure, or Fatal Attraction. You can tell that this one was made now, though, because its emblematic villains are not sexually aggressive career women but precisely those decent and bemused leading-man types that Michael Douglas once specialized in: men who work hard and make money and, once they find a good woman, settle down and strive to treat her right, but whose very understandable frailties can still make them easy prey for a certain sort of harpy. Promising Young Woman is in part a parable of the nice guy, nicely educated—the kind of young man whose promise matters to his community, and should never be squandered over a little thing like rape.
In the opening scene, three dudes drinking in a bar notice a woman slumped against a red banquette, head unsteady on her shoulders, legs akimbo, white underwear on show. Her condition inspires disgust and condemnation in the first man, predatory lust in the second, while the doe-eyed third, played by Adam Brody, looks pained by their boorishness and heads over to see if she needs help. No prizes for guessing which of these three little piggies will lure her to his place and try to assault her. The woman herself, Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), doesn’t need to guess; as her name suggests, she has been cursed with clear-sightedness. And it turns out she’s sober, and she does this every week. She sends the Brody character into a panic by snapping her eyes open and sitting up to confront him mid-fumble. He is the rule and not the exception: Every single time, it’s some soppy-seeming hypocrite who takes her near-unconscious bait. When she gets home in the morning, she commemorates them with a tally mark in a little notebook.
A black-comedy thriller may have a special vulnerability to spoilers. I’ll just say that Cassie is a 30-year-old woman living with her parents in candy-colored suburbia. She dropped out of her medical studies years ago, after a traumatic incident befell her closest friend, Nina. It appears that Cassie derailed her own life in solidarity when Nina’s was ruined. She spends part of her time working in a coffee shop run by Gail (Laverne Cox), a rare understanding presence, and the rest on a secret, quixotic quest for revenge. What almost everyone else has willfully forgotten, she can’t or won’t get over, and that keeps her isolated. Her insistence on staying that way is tested early on when Ryan (Bo Burnham)—an eligible young man who studied with her and is now a pediatric surgeon—meet-cutes his way into the café and begins the laborious task of winning her affections.
In one sense, Fennell has made a version of Jordan Peele’s Get Out aimed at women. Just as Peele’s film skewered the insidious racism espoused by rich liberals who keep telling you they only wish they’d had the chance to vote for Obama a third time, Promising Young Woman offers a sly warning. The people around you may have beautiful manners when they want to: They know how to treat you like an equal, make you feel comfortable, even appreciated, but you should always be ready to run. Like Get Out, Fennell’s film extracts eerie effects from familiar music: a neatly timed “Angel of the Morning,” a slow and sinister instrumental cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic.” Most striking of all is its deployment of “Something Wonderful,” from the musical The King and I. It’s not the most famous variation on the “My Man” song, that subset of the American songbook that muses on the joys of having a man to love— no matter how cruel, indifferent, or lacking in desirable qualities he may be—and on how good it feels when he treats you like shit 95 percent of the time and then stops, perhaps needing a hug. But its lyrics underline the film’s deft marriage of thriller and rom-com elements: “This is a man who stumbles and falls / But this is a man who tries. / This is a man you’ll forgive and forgive/ And help and protect, as long as you live … You’ll always go along / Defend him when he’s wrong.” These men aren’t all that scary; it’s their enablers and enforcers—our institutions, our entertainments, us—that do the damage. Fennell takes what’s conventional enough to be treated as enjoyable or even comforting, and makes it alarming, funny, strange.
Promising Young Woman isn’t demonizing anyone, and it’s not about how the real baddies are hard to spot. It’s about more widespread hypocrisies, about what behavior is collectively encouraged and rewarded, and whose feelings about it must be indulged and cosseted afterward. People reassure each other that nothing is their fault. One man, toddlerlike, howls, “I didn’t do anything!” A woman notes over wine that in the end men like a good girl, and you shouldn’t drink too much if you don’t want something bad to happen; putting his misdemeanors (and their casualties) behind him, a man tells his bride, “You are my moral compass.” In her adventures, Cassie encounters only one person who has come to the same conclusions she has, and feels intense remorse for his complicity. He calls this an epiphany; others term it “a psychotic episode.”
A sense of unreality pervades the movie: the colors, the set pieces, even the way Cassie never registers fear in confronting a would-be attacker alone at night. Mulligan appears slightly miscast, in another deliberate distancing tactic. She’s a few years older than her character, a gap emphasized by her blonde braids and little-girlish dresses and the dollhouse kitsch of the family home she’s still stuck in. She looks wary and wry and jaded, out of step with everyone around her. The film never lets you forget how exhausting and jarring her experience is. The distancing can be risky: Audiences aren’t invited to identify with Cassie in the way they are with the protagonist of Get Out, who only gradually realizes the horrors he’s being drawn into. Cassie is nearly always ahead, and Fennell, aware of the perils of misdirected empathy, seems to want viewers to think more than to feel.
Whereas Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, probably the most ambitious recent exploration of similar themes, drops its viewers into a succession of sometimes warring perspectives, Fennell goes a different route. Her film has a bracing approach to the supposed conflict between psychological nuance and moral clarity that has often mired public discussions of sexual violence. “So you’re perfect, right?” a man asks Cassie after she challenges him. “You’ve never done anything you’re ashamed of?” She doesn’t answer, but the film does. It’s possible to let certain universal truths—that everyone is fallible, sex and communication are complicated, and so on—go without saying yet again. You might wait to repeat them until after the particular wrong under discussion has been addressed, or at least acknowledged. Like a contemporary Antigone, Cassie feels compelled to seek justice even when no one around her can recognize it as such. Not an eye for an eye, just due respect and remembrance.
This is perhaps the movie’s biggest gamble, and it’s an admirable one. Based on the trailer and taglines, an audience may come in expecting blood-soaked vengeance in the Kill Bill vein, a cartoonish, lurid parade of cheap thrills, and instead find what is, albeit full of jolts and satisfactions, a cool, measured morality play.