A hard candy with a sour center, “Promising Young Woman” turns sociopathy into a style and trauma into a joke. Embodying both, Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), 30, a medical school dropout still living with her concerned parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), is a weekday barista and a weekend huntress. Her prey is two-legged, but single-minded: men who equate a woman’s inebriation with consent.
A movie about the long tail of a sexual assault (to elaborate would be unfair), this first feature from Emerald Fennell opens in a club, the camera panning across the doughy nether regions of gyrating businessmen before landing on Cassandra. Lolling in a booth, smeary and apparently wasted, she’s a treat that one man (played by Adam Brody) can’t resist. Gallantly offering to take her home, he smoothly detours to his apartment. By the time Cassandra reveals her stone-cold sobriety, he has already removed her underwear and moved in for the score.
The next shot shows her walking home, barefoot and munching happily on a hot dog as a cover of “It’s Raining Men” fills the soundtrack. There are splashes of red on her arm — blood or ketchup? Later, she logs the encounter in a fat notebook filled with red-and-black tallies. What the colors represent is, like too many aspects of the wildly improbable plot, unexplained. Instead, we follow Cassandra as she continues her dangerous creep patrol, seemingly armed with nothing more deadly than a wagging finger and a withering gaze.
A muddled mélange of black comedy, revenge thriller and feminist lecture, “Promising Young Woman” too often backs away from its potentially searing setup. With a screenplay also by Fennell, the film remains unwilling to follow through on its own outrage. Popping colors and a hyper-feminized design illuminate scenes of oddly static artifice, the preposterousness of Cassandra’s yearslong crusade — how many predator hangouts can there be in her suburb? — undermining the moral weight of its issues.
The introduction of Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate turned pediatric surgeon, sends the film into romantic-comedy territory and Cassandra into a brief flirtation with normalcy. But when Ryan reveals new information about old acquaintances, her stalking-and-shaming routine widens to include the women who downplayed the long-ago crime. Yet the film, like Cassandra’s life, feels formless, and not nearly as edgy as it thinks it is: an extended gimmick that fails to fill in too many blanks.
Buried beneath blonde curls and sheepdog bangs, Mulligan lends depth and sensitivity to a character that’s little more than a vengeful doll. Supporting performances from Laverne Cox, as Cassandra’s sardonic boss, and Alison Brie, as a former school friend, add snap and texture to a movie that’s too tentative to sell the damage at its core. To hammer home the stakes, “Promising Young Woman” needs at least one scene where a man responds credibly to Cassandra’s trickery: Not all aspiring abusers turn apologetic when denied. And while the red annotations in her log book might indicate violent outcomes, the allusion is too vague to register.
There’s nothing hesitant, though, about the film’s ending — or, more specifically, its penultimate scene. Viewed in the context of a male-comeuppance story, it could appear disastrous; but, for me, it was the movie’s most authentic moment and the strongest indicator of Fennell’s talent for digging into a character’s darkest desires. “Promising Young Woman” isn’t a revenge fantasy so much as a sad tale of warped grief and blazing fury: Cassandra may despise her pathetic victims, but she loathes herself most of all.
Promising Young Woman
Rated R for terrible behavior and worse language. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.