Promising Young Woman is an atypical thriller with the perfect blend of pop aesthetics and violence

Gabriella Geisinger
·4-min read

From Digital Spy

Promising Young Woman was one of the year's best films, but its debut in cinemas was derailed — like so many of 2020's movies. It's a revenge fantasy almost any woman can relate to, which takes a thrill-laden twist into dark, unimaginable places.

The movie is described as a black comedy thriller, the synopsis of which reads: "Nothing in Cassie's life is what it appears to be – she's wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she's living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs from the past."

What makes Promising Young Woman such an intriguing film is the dichotomy of tension that holds it together. Cassie is a lone woman seeking revenge (not an unusual premise) but unlike, say, Kill Bill, Promising Young Woman isn't populated by equally extreme characters.

Photo credit: Focus Features
Photo credit: Focus Features

Instead, the people around Cassie watch her with curiosity, concern, and mild disappointment at the life she's leading which, as the trailer gives away, is very different from what could have been. Its what Cassie gets up to at night, under cover of a variety of wig and outfit changes that truly defines her, but no one knows (except the viewer of course).

These visual changes compliment the neon-soaked cotton-candy aesthetic that rules Promising Young Woman, and somehow none of this is alienating. The glitter, the pink, the Britney Spears — all of it screams teenage girl but there's a darkness that pulls it back down to Earth, into real adult realms of violence and pain.

Photo credit: Focus Features
Photo credit: Focus Features

It's this stuntedness, made clear visually, along with Cassie's extreme nature that holds the experience taut, and it's a lot for Carey Mulligan as the lead to handle. But she does it, not with ease — there is nothing at ease about Cassie — but with great effort and so you're invested in her as Cassie follows the path that has only one end, one we don't see coming.

The characters that surround and support (or try to) Cassie are all equally interesting, and you get the sense that they're coming to her in each interaction with their own lifetimes of trauma, decisions, and events. Bo Burnham, in particular, gives a strong performance.

Promising Young Woman doesn't worry itself over being too heavy-handed or over the top, or trying to play a game of nuance and leave it up to the audience to decide who's bad and who's good. It plays it out in big neon letters.

Photo credit: Focus Features
Photo credit: Focus Features

If you feel the need to classify cinema by social movements, which we wouldn't but it's being done, this is being associated with the #MeToo movement. On the other side of the spectrum of films that deal with these themes is The Assistant.

Both movies are about young women caught up in power dynamics that they want desperately to subvert and eventually topple. The Assistant is cool, dark, and seethingly tense (we loved it).

Meanwhile, Promising Young Woman takes the opposite approach: it's bright, colourful, but still seethingly tense just like The Assistant. Each film looks at the experience of what it means to be a promising young woman in a world dominated by men.

Photo credit: Focus Features
Photo credit: Focus Features

Promising Young Woman is, of course, a movie unto itself and despite its thematic similarities to The Assistant, it tells a different story via different characters in a very different way. This way — with brash pop-culture aesthetics — may not be for everyone, and it may even lose some of the most ardent fans as it meanders through its nearly-two-hour runtime.

But stick with it. Promising Young Woman is a different type of revenge drama, more akin to the schadenfreude of Titus Andronicus than Kill Bill. And while it may at first make you sceptical, the final third will have you on the edge of your seat.

Promising Young Woman is out in the UK on February 12

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