Given that the entertainment industry is pretty much the center of the #MeToo universe in terms of generating its most public effects — and, needless to say, causes — probably no Sundance film this year will be as hot a conversation topic as “Promising Young Woman.” Emerald Fennell’s first directorial feature is a female revenge fantasy that hews to some of the tropes in that genre, but also takes considerable joy in upending viewer expectations. Starring Carey Mulligan as a woman on a singular mission, this unclassifiable, somewhat uneven but always compelling mix of thriller, black comedy and a whole lot of whatnot is going to stir a lot of debate in Park City and beyond.
The commercial prospects for this Focus Features release are harder to predict, as what’s actually onscreen is much trickier than the cheerily titillating exploitation-horror suggested by its early slogan (“Take her home and take your chances”) and blood-dripping poster design. “Species,” this is not — nor even an updated “Ms. 45.” A subtler viral campaign playing on themes of sexual predation and cultural blowback might more effectively put “Woman” on the radar of audiences who wouldn’t be lured in by a genre film, or ticked off by a movie that doesn’t really turn out to be one.
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Cassie (Mulligan) is a medical school dropout on the brink of 30, still living with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown), who works at a coffee shop to her own unconcealed boredom and the perplexity of her manager (Laverne Cox). She has no professional ambitions, no boyfriend, nor any other standard interests. She does, however, have a vocation of sorts, albeit not the kind you’d tell anyone about.
Once a week or so, she dresses to the nines, goes out to a club, and is found passing-out-drunk there by some man who pretends to be “helping” her, but only wants to take advantage of a woman clearly not in full, consensual control. When he inevitably gets very frisky, she suddenly turns out to be the stone-sober deliverer of a message that will make him think hard before ever attempting such predatory hijinks again.
Though it takes some time for the full backstory to emerge, we suss quickly that the reason for Cassie’s bait-and-switch pursuit has to do with the fate of Nina, a childhood friend turned med school classmate. What happened to Nina pains all the more because nothing at all happened to those who did it to her, or who dismissed her accusations afterward. Cassie has reduced her own life to a kind of empty shell in order to devote full focus towards at least making sure a few clouds cross the horizon of those perps, as well as the kind of men who might do something similar to a “promising young woman” like Nina.
Complicating this plan is the resurfacing of Ryan (comedian Bo Burnham, whose directorial feature “Eighth Grade” presented its own queasy take on youthful sexuality), with whom they both studied. Now a pediatric surgeon, he’s maintained an unrequited crush on Cassie, and is so exasperatingly unobjectionable she cannot fully resist the unwanted distraction of his pitched woo.
But he’s also stayed in touch with people who knew Nina, and who seem to have gone merrily on with their successful lives, feeling no guilt whatsoever. While there are speed bumps en route, Cassie is soon renewing her acquaintance with various folk who’ll wish she hadn’t, including characters played by Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina and Christopher Lowell.
An actress (currently playing Camilla Parker Bowles on “The Crown”) and writer (TV’s “Killing Eve,” as well as three novels for younger readers, Fennell works from an arresting script (featured on the Black List in 2018) whose fluctuating levels of irony and dead-seriousness are further complicated — perhaps sometimes just obscured — by her idiosyncratic directorial choices.
“Promising Young Woman” has a lot of stylistic elements that jostle intriguingly, but don’t necessarily cohere as a whole. There’s the surreal ’70s suburban-affluence time capsule of the heroine’s parental home, weird enough to summon the specter of Diane Arbus. There’s the sarcastic comedy riffing of Cassie’s rapport with Ryan (and her boss), as opposed to the sociopathic cool she dons when interacting with less sympathetic (but more naturalistically written and played) figures.
The soundtrack features a parade of deliberately vapid pop tunes by the likes of Paris Hilton and the Spice Girls. Yet Anthony Willis’ original score is puzzlingly conventional and earnest, complete with ominous Dolby thumps every time justice is served. The film really goes out on some limbs it then seems to saw off in the last lap, both tonally and plot-wise. Still, haphazard as “Woman” can seem, it all somehow pulls together at last with a satisfying smack.
Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale — Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her. Whereas with this star, Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on. The flat American accent she delivers in her lowest voice register likewise seems a bit meta, though it’s not quite clear what the quote marks around this performance signify. Still, like everything here, this turn is skillful, entertaining and challenging, even when the eccentric method obscures the precise message. “Promising Young Woman” is often at its most inspired when contradicting itself — one of the grimmest scenes here is accompanied by something utterly incongruous from “The King and I,” and the frisson between image and song is so flummoxing it’s rather brilliant.