Promising Young Woman: A bold and audacious new vision of the classic revenge film
By Brad Lane
Last week the Academy Awards released their list of this year’s nominations and among them, few films’ presence at the awards surprised me as much as Promising Young Woman’s 5 Oscar nominations. I expected films like Nomadland, Mank, and Minari to be nominated for best picture, but the recognition for a film so abrasive and bold as writer-director Emerald Fennell’s candy-coated revenge thriller took me completely by surprise. I understand that description of Promising Young Woman might seem confusing, but that’s because it is a film resistant to neat categorization. This only works to the film’s strength as Fennell constructs an entire world that feels wholly and originally her own.
When the audience is first introduced to our protagonist, Cassie, she is almost too drunk to stand as she is carried out of a bar by a young man refusing her pleas that she doesn’t want to go home with him. This scene continues until she is seemingly passed out and the man begins to make sexual advances on her and Cassie reveals that she was just pretending to be drunk. This is Cassie’s nightly routine, to scare men out of predatory behavior. This of course, is a compulsion born out of personal trauma and a behavior that begins to negatively affect her career, relationships and safety. This narrative setup leads to an interrogation of Cassie’s own trauma, modern rape culture and the patriarchal structures that uphold the harmful status quo.
As you can tell from the synopsis above, Promising Young Woman is a loud movie. It practically screams at the audience with a chilling and intense immediacy. This overt messaging might sound heavy handed, but that’s kind of the point. The argument Fennell is making is one that critiques nuance. It seeks to cut through the niceties and bureaucracy that exist in conversations about sexual assault to speak more directly to what we as audiences think justice should look like. Its colorful visuals, distinctly feminine perspective and clear messaging all work in tandem to cut through a cinematic status quo set by the overwhelming white and male old guard of Hollywood.
The Academy has a long history of rewarding a specific type of filmmaking resulting in film fans coining the creation of entire genre known as Oscar-bait. These films exist to win awards for their cast and crew and are categorized by safe, visually-striking narratives about people in a marginalized community. It is important to the Oscars that these stories represent positive representation of these oppressed individuals while maintaining messaging that reaffirms a white male status quo – think 2019’s best picture winner Green Book as an example. Its decision this year to recognize a film like Promising Young Woman is both an indicator that the MeToo movement in Hollywood made progress in advancing the voices of women and that these stories desperately need to be told more.
Anchored by a daring lead performance by Carrie Mulligan, Promising Young Woman is a stylish, substantive, and at-times fun (oddly enough) viewing experience that is sure to leave a strong impression long after the credits roll. Promising Young Woman is currently in theaters and is available to buy or rent from all video on-demand services. – 4.5/5 stars