‘Promising Young Woman’ blurs the lines between right and wrong in an introspective look at sexual violence

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Warning: This review contains mild spoilers. 

‘He seemed like such a nice guy.’ ‘Well, he didn’t know what he was doing.’ Still, there seemed to be a connection between them. Sure, he lured her into his apartment while she was seemingly intoxicated. But I’m sure he didn’t mean any harm! …Right?

Sarcasm aside, “I’m a nice guy” seems to be the catchphrase of “Promising Young Woman,” a dark comedy that does a fantastic job of examining gender dynamics in the modern era. The film, which is nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, is centred around Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), or Cassie, a med student dropout who once had a promising (hence the name) future seemingly seeking revenge for an event in her past by feigning intoxication in clubs to allow for men to pick her up before revealing her sobriety when they try and take advantage of her. It’s quite a unique premise that is provocative in all the right ways.

Let’s start with our heroine, Cassie. The cunning and intelligent ways in which Cassie exacts revenge are so satisfying, yet executed in a way that doesn’t paint her as this idealistic heroine. Her character is real; her flaws aren’t shied away from. Instead, the film gives the audience room to develop their own feelings on the character. Coupled with the justness of her motivation, an interesting relationship is crafted between the characters on the screen and the audience members.

In fact, everything in this film blurs the line between right and wrong. Take some of the more technical elements of the film. The cinematography is not only stunning but serves a very specific purpose to the understanding and digestion of the film. Everything in the film can almost be described as “campy.” The backgrounds are bright and colorful, consisting of a quaint coffee shop, an old-time pharmacy and an energetic nightclub among others. This is in direct contrast to the dark themes that the movie grapples with, creating a captivating foil.

Not only does the background clash with the themes, but the pop music soundtrack does as well. The music consists of “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls, an orchestral version of “Toxic” by Brittney Spears, and “Stars Are Blind” by Paris Hilton. Not only is every single song sung by a female artist, further advancing the themes of the film, but it also continues this contrast. The light and fun background and music versus the dark and heavy themes. The good versus the evil. The right versus the wrong.

But you didn’t think that the contrast stopped there did you? Not by a long shot. Let’s talk about casting.

First off, Carey Mulligan as Cassie is such a great casting decision. She expertly captures the duality of the main character: the borderline sociopathic Cassie when she seeks revenge is chilling and cathartic while the loving and affectionate Cassie when she’s around Ryan (Bo Burnham), her new boyfriend, is heartwarming.

Also, Bo Burnham! His portrayal of the awkward and lovable (at least for a while) Ryan is unbelievable. He really shines throughout the film as the comedic and heartwarming relief (again…at least for a little while) from the heavy topics that the film delves into.

But what is especially intriguing about the casting choices is that most of the antagonists are known for their comedic roles. To name a few, Madison is played by Alison Brie, known for her comedic role as Annie Edison in the Emmy-nominated “Community,” Neil is played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, known for his role as Fogell in “Superbad,” Joe is played by Max Greenfield, known for his work as Schmidt in “New Girl”, and Bo Burnham (not exactly an antagonist but nevertheless) is a well-known comedian and actor, known for his standup comedy and as a writer and director on the film “Eighth Grade.”

Emerald Fennell, the director of the film, indicated that she made the choice to cast actors known typically for their roles as “nice characters” to convey that potentially anyone can be a rapist or rape apologist, even the ones that are typically viewed as nice. With this decision, the foil that was established by the soundtrack and the visuals is continued.

My one gripe with the film, however, is the ending. I’ve seen a lot of commentary floating around talking about the controversial ending and I wanted to add my two cents to the mix. Without giving too much away, the actual ending itself I have no problem with. It is cathartic and gratifying, just as I imagined it. It didn’t end with a neat, tidy little bow. It felt rooted in the same reality that I discussed previously with regards to Cassie as a character. My main problem with the end is that Cassie’s character development feels odd. The mental space that she is in when she starts is similar, if not identical, to the mental space that she is in at the end. As a platform for delivering the messages that the film is trying to convey, the ending most definitely succeeds. But in terms of the characters and plot, the ending feels a little unfulfilling for Cassie.

So, should you watch the film? If you’re looking for a dark comedy and thriller that makes a compelling commentary on rape culture and the male-female relationship, this one is a must-watch for you. Just be prepared for a wild time at the end.

Grade: B+