TO THOSE OF you who get to this fascinating, absolutely riveting movie, I suggest you pay attention to the art direction (if for a moment you can concentrate on anything beyond the jaw dropping B-movie thrill of what’s taking place): from the protagonist’s parent’s kitschy house to her jokily ‘girlie’ coffee shop to a wonderful hippy-esque wedding ceremony…all glossy surface masking so much that remains out of sight.
In one coffee shop scene the camera focuses on the beatific, beautiful, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth face of Cassie (short for, duh, Cassandra). She’s standing in front of some sort of ornate pink circular wall hanging. It frames her to suggest a halo. It’s an ironic icon for this avenging angel of death.
Cassie (Cary Mulligan), traumatised by an incident several years ago, has dropped out of medical school, works as a barista by day and by night pretends to be the uber vulnerable woman: one helplessly drunk in a bar. And thus is she open sesame for any proto-rapist on the prowl. From their, and the society’s perspective, she’s clearly looking for it. Inevitably someone (she’s ‘drunk’ in quite posh bars with posh boys on the make) offers to get her back home safely, then takes her to his apartment and seeks to have his way with her before she passes out. Their shock when she ‘snaps to’ and reveals how deadly sober she is, is a sharp kick in the groin. Her potential assailants veer between shame and outright terror. Who knows what vengeance this angel can wring upon them?
These faux seductions are just the warm-up act for a much more cleverly planned strategy of revenge/exorcism/catharsis on Cassie’s part. Her intent is not simply to seek revenge, a la Arya Stark (remember her list?), it’s to force those who catalysed her initial breakdown into facing up to their crimes, to confronting their demons within, to be exposed to the truth behind their carefully constructed lies and narratives.
And this is the heart of the story (which feels so very current and ‘real’). It’s about the clever narratives people tell themselves to protect themselves from the sins of their past (in this case gang rape): that they were young and didn’t know better, that in the world of “he said, she said” it was always better to protect ambitious young men’s futures (forget about how it may have affected the victims’ futures); that any woman’s sex life is fair game in a court of law; that anyway they’ve become better persons etc.
We construct narratives to fence us in against harm (Banks are forces of good, the US is a bastion of democracy, the UK has overcome systemic racism etc). Cassie is an archetype of the worst nightmare: she’s the arch debunker of myths, the exposer of truths. And once the truth of one’s self is exposed, once the superstructure of wealth and fame and decency has been pulled down, so often there is nothing left (One character in the movie – Alfred Molina- has come to his own self-reckoning before Cassie’s arrival; and he’s a husk of a person)
Well, a woman who, alone, entraps men in isolated bedrooms isn’t going to end well. But this one does, sorta, in a wonderful moment of movie catharsis, of grand operatic cummupance…a joyful, gotcha exclamation point after two hours of edge of seat viewing.
Carey Mulligan, who holds the movie together in every frame, from start to finish, is outstanding, as she always is. She can switch from angel to Devil and all the layers of eschatology that separate them, in a flick of an eye, a curl of a lip. Writer/Director Emerald fennel (who you may recognise from The Crown), gives her tale the over the top jauntiness of a satiric morality story.
She also slyly encourages the viewer to sympathize with some of Carrie’s victims. The question she poses is that perhaps it isn’t just a black and white affair. That the stain of past misdeeds are not permanently etched into the skin. That people can change. That people can emerge from the darkness.
Or can they? Perhaps (to bastardise Macbeth) all great Neptune’s ocean can never ever wash the blood of the past off the hands of the present.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN. Writer/Director: Emerald Fennell. With: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Clancy Brown, Laverne Cox, Alfred Molina. Cinematographer: Benjamin Kracun (Monsoon). Production Designer: Miahael Perry