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Review: 'Promising Young Woman'

There have been some memorable erotic thrillers over the years.

They are a guilty pleasure. Sinister plots. Steamy sex. Bloody violence. And unnerving suspense.

Movies like Basic Instinct and Single White Female (1992), Fatal Attraction (1987) American Gigolo (1980) and American Psycho (2000) immediately come to mind.

Promising Young Woman fits into that category of film.

It opens at a nightclub and a bunch of drunken young businessmen eyeing an inebriated young woman, sitting on a sofa, on the verge of passing out.

As she sits, her legs spread apart momentarily in a shot reminiscent of Sharon Stone’s teasing reveal in Basic Instinct. She looks vulnerable.

One of the men offers her a ride home but takes her to his apartment instead where he offers her more alcohol.

As he comes on to her, the scene takes on the creepy vibe of a date rape.

Soon they are in his bed and he is beginning to slip off her panties when she suddenly, soberly asks him “Hey, what are you doing?”

It’s a chilling turn.

She is very clearly not under the influence and he is very clearly caught up in something he never anticipated or bargained for—that the predator would suddenly, unexpectedly find himself to be the prey.

After returning home, a glimpse of Cassie’s diary reveals that this is not the first time she’s played this head game.

The clusters of slash marks chronicle dozens of other instances. What we witnessed was not a random event, but rather a pattern events that she has carefully orchestrated, on many occasions.

But why?

Cassie is a modern-day vigilante in the #metoo era. Something has triggered her worst instincts and sent her on a relentless mission of revenge.

And she’s the perfect agent: young, attractive, and wickedly smart, despite her appearance of sweetness, innocence and vulnerability.

We learn that she was once in med school with her best friend, Nina, who was at the top of her class before suddenly dropping out of school. Cassie soon followed in Nina’s footsteps.

The mystery of Nina and Cassie is at the heart of Promising Young Woman.

We sense that something terrible happened in the past. Something unresolved. Something screaming out for justice and revenge.

The movie is beautifully constructed, wasting no time pulling the audience aboard for the ride.

There is suspense and tension right from the start, but then the story veers off in a more light-hearted, romantic direction when Cassie is reunited with a shy, likeable classmate who could never work up the nerve to ask her out.

He bumps into her in the small coffee shop where she works and their faltering attempt at a relationship begins.

He’s puzzled about why Cassie also dropped out of med school and is now living at home with her parents and earning a living as a barista.

He senses that she’s a complex character but has no idea just how complex and sinister she is, living a schizophrenic, sociopathic second life after dark.

Promising Young Woman is well written and well directed, by Emerald Fennell, making her feature film directorial debut.

The cast is first-rate as are the performances beginning with Carey Mulligan in the lead role.

She covers the wide spectrum of Cassie’s behavior, from sweet, loveable young lady to calculating, well, another “C-word,” here, which she is called by one of her many angry victims. It’s quite a demanding range, and she plays it flawlessly.

Most movies in this genre go heavy with graphic sex, nudity and violence. It goes with the territory.

But what’s notable about Promising Young Woman is the lack of reliance on these elements.

It works despite that, because what is implied more than suffices in drawing us in to the story. It manages to be powerful without being blatant, obvious or gratuitous.

It compensates with some descriptive language that fills in the blanks. In doing so, it manages to crank up the heat without showing the flames of the fire.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing tame about the story.

Cassie’s obsessive behavior takes her to some dangerous places where she plays some dark, dangerous games.

She’s even willing to pose as a bachelor party stripper complete with the tacky nurse’s outfit including thigh-highs, red lipstick and red stiletto heels.

She will do whatever it takes to exact her brand of revenge and punishment, whatever the cost.

She is an unsuspecting young man’s worst nightmare, a distant relative of Glenn Close’s deranged character in Fatal Attraction.

While the movie manages not to drill too deep into issues ripped from the headlines in recent years relating to sexual misconduct and #metoo, it does connect to all that with seriousness and frankness.

The pivotal event that sets this story in motion is one that raises many questions about accountability, responsibility and the treatment of women who have been victimized.

None of this is treated lightly.

On a technical level, the movie has the look and feel of the movies that inspired it—the art direction, cinematography and editing that made all those movies work.

Music is also a creative element used effectively in this film, ranging from screeching violins, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), to a short list of catchy pop songs.

It’s one of those movies that might motivate you to search and buy the soundtrack, something that used to happen with much more regularity in years gone by.

In fairness, I can’t and absolutely won’t give away the ending of Promising Young Woman.

That would not be fair, for this or any other movie. No spoilers.

All I can say is that it’s powerful and probably not what you expected.

True to the twisted wiring of the main character, it’s a reflection of just how far a brilliant young woman, intent on revenge at any price, will go.

Be prepared for a shocker.


Promising Young Woman opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

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