It’s only a few minutes into “Promising Young Woman” that you see how ironic the title is. Carey Mulligan is Cassie, pretty, blond, just 30, who is considered “promising” because she habitually pretends to be drunk in popular pick-up bars so that some scumbag, thinking she’ll be an easy lay, offers to take her home, or to his place. Once there, she gets her thrills by suddenly getting sober, hostile and icily cruel. She comes back to her parents’ house at all hours, and when they ask how her evening was at the breakfast table, she says “nothin’ much” with a shrug.
The picture gets even stranger, but this is how director-writer Emerald Fennell wants to intrigue us. We find out that Cassie had dropped out of medical school, seemingly for no reason, and now works as a barrista in a coffee bar. She has no friends, or boyfriend, and says she likes it that way, which confuses her father, and drives her mother to hysterics. But the real story only starts when Ryan, a young doctor, recognizes her as a former med school classmate. Now, with halting low-key charm, he asks to take her out. As played by Bo Burnham with disarming sincerity, Cassie thaws in front of our eyes.
This accidental reunion sets in motion Cassie’s long suppressed rage over an incident that caused her to drop out of school. It seems that her best friend since childhood, Nina, was also a med student there, but had to drop out after being sexually assaulted at a party, which Cassie had not attended. Nina deteriorated rapidly, and eventually committed suicide. Cassie finds herself falling into a growing obsession with the incident. The more details she discovers, sometimes from Ryan, who was at the party, the more it occupies her thoughts. The rest of the film is devoted to Cassie’s relentless and destructive pursuit of justice for her dead friend.
Carey Mulligan gives the necessary brilliant performance, and it makes this film. For all of Cassie’s fierce determination, and her brash demeanor, she is a woman in terrible pain. Mulligan convinces us that Cassie once had it all, and that the world would see her as a brilliant success; a promise to be fulfilled. But then, a singular event threw her entire life into disarray. Even brief moments of joy, as when Ryan reawakens her need for love, soon fade away. To be exact, the moment she sees the phone tape of the party – which the audience never sees – we can tell she never expected that, and was horrified. It sets in motion the final piece of her plan, which requires her to see Ryan for the last time.
The execution of her plan is perfect, and makes for a powerful climax. However, while the film only has one ending, Cassie’s plan didn’t need to end the way it did for it to succeed. She just designed it so she couldn’t lose either way. Still, I have to admit those last ten minutes are a bumpy ride, at least for some critics. There’s a lot to take in. You decide.
But the most important thing is that it satisfies what we want to see. The lasting impression is that Cassie, even in her deranged state, was absolutely committed to making an indifferent world notice what had been done, and that the guilty, which included mere witnesses to the crime, would have to pay.