Take a quick glance at this cast and you might think it’s the lineup for yet another Judd Apatow bro-fest: Bo Burnham. Max Greenfeld. Adam Brody. Sam Richardson. Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka, McLovin). But that’s exactly what this 2020 thriller wants you to think.
Promising Young Woman isn’t about a bunch of dudes hanging out, getting high, and trying to pick up chicks. It’s about the women forced to live in a world dreamt up by men — and one woman’s quest to get even by any means necessary.
“I wanted to write a movie that reflected this thing that we all grew up with, which was that getting girls drunk in order to ‘seduce them’ — seduce in inverted commas — was kind of normal,” writer-director Emerald Fennell told Vogue. “It was in every comedy and girls’ bodies were something to be won, almost by any means necessary.”
Promising Young Woman stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie. When we first meet Cassie, she’s alone at a nightclub and way too drunk. One of the male actors listed above walks over to her and offers to help her get home. You can probably guess where the story goes next. Cassie passes out and the dude starts to take advantage of her. Except, he’s just fallen for her trap.
Cassie reveals that she’s actually sober and exposes the guy for the creep that he is. The movie builds so much tension in this scene that for a second it feels like she’s about to rip the guy’s head off. Instead, she walks away with a smile on her face.
In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Carey Mulligan discussed how Promising Young Woman uses horror to get at something even more uncomfortable than blood and gore.
“Part of the challenge is making it not feel like medicine, making it feel like something you’d want to go and see on date night, and then discuss it afterward. By that point, it is not in any way a conventional horror movie, but it’s why I think horror has always been used to kind of discuss the darker, more problematic things. I think of Get Out and how expertly it made both the most pleasurable brilliant, funny terrifying film in the world, and nobody left that movie theater feeling or thinking the same way. It’s an extraordinary experience. And then you go back to, like, Frankenstein and people’s worry about science replacing God, or Dracula and kind of concerns about sex.”
This premise alone could probably fuel an entire movie, but Promising Young Woman has much more to show us. It soon becomes clear that Cassie is dealing with trauma of her own. As the story unfurls, she attempts to get justice for her best friend while also dipping her toes back into normal life through a relationship with a seemingly nice guy played by Bo Burnham.
This all culminates in two incredible sequences that I won’t spoil. The first is one of the darkest twists of the last few years, and one that brings the horror subtext of Promising Young Woman straight to the forefront. The second gives the movie a perfect ending in a way you won’t see coming.
Promising Young Woman is streaming on HBO Max until December 1 (tomorrow!).