The premise of Emerald Fennell’s #MeToo era power fantasy is that all men are rapers. Hardly a provocative statement these days, and certainly one women have earned the right to indulge. But Promising Young Woman isn’t done yet. It further supposes that they can be shamed into comeuppance. And if that doesn’t work, by golly, things might have to get drastic!
There’s indisputable value in these reversed power fantasies, especially as they break free of their exploitative roots. Coraline Fargeat’s lurid lovely Revenge and Jennifer Kent’s achingly poignant The Nightingale are recent examples of how women have wrested control of rapesploitation from the vulgar filmmakers who used to cash in on it. Enter Promising Young Woman with its bubbly “I want to play, too!” approach. But it’s facile premise that men just need to be shamed isn’t exactly thrilling, and more to the point, it’s egregiously out of touch with reality. Brett Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court for the rest of his life, and regardless of what did or didn’t happen with Christine Blasey Ford, he outed himself as an entitled frat boy who doesn’t have the disposition to be a Supreme Court justice. But Promising Young Woman supposes a world where his tantrums would have ended his judicial career, and if that didn’t do it, then by golly, it just takes the martyrdom of some promising young woman. Roll the title card, which will read “The End” in a curlicue font.
At least it isn’t as embarrassingly bad as Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas, which takes a similarly facile approach to its indictment of rape culture (the rapers in Black Christmas don’t even need their positions of power and privilege, because they have magical black goo). Fennell shoots Promising Young Woman with a candy-colored enthusiasm and a lively cast. Carey Mulligan has a grand time playing a self-assured vigilante of shame with literally no fucks to give. It’s nice to see her flexing confidence when she so often plays frail characters pulled along by the plot. She and Bo Burnham, towering above her at 6’5″, make quite the couple. Burnham’s effusive charm is a real joy to watch, and it’s easy to see how he fosters the kind of trust it took to make Eighth Grade with Elise Fisher. Otherwise, Fennell squanders several talented actors in thankless roles. That’s how you’re going to use the wonderful Sam Richardson?
The big finale, which will be spoiled if you watch trailers, is especially ridiculous for its attempted last-minute twist, which feels like a cheat instead of a twist. Fennell would have you believe that Carey Mulligan’s character — called Cassie, but listed in the credits as Cassandra in case you didn’t get it — was one step ahead of everyone else all along. Which might make for a fun grrl power fantasy, but it’s not much of a contribution to any conversation about rape culture, the #MeToo movement, or even revenge thrillers.