Promising Young Woman (CREDIT: Focus Features)

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina, Chris Lowell, Max Greenfield, Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, Christopher Mintz-Plasse

Director: Emerald Fennell

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: R for Twisted Jokes, Drug Spikings, Discussions of Sexual Violence, and Some Up-Close Acute Violence

Release Date: December 25, 2020

Promising Young Woman hooked me immediately with its trailer, seemingly telling me everything I needed to know. When I finally saw the actual movie, it somehow still had plenty of opportunities to surprise me. It fits one of my favorite formulas for all-time great movies: simultaneously exactly what I was hoping for and so different from what I was expecting. Carey Mulligan is a knockout, in every way you can imagine. She plays med school dropout Cassie Thomas, a black widow who lures entitled men into this intoxicating trap she’s cooked up. She pretends to be blackout drunk at bars so that someone will not-so-gallantly bring her home to take advantage of her, at which point she drops the charade and spooks like them like a zombie popping out of the grave. She has her own history with assault, but she’s also an avenging angel taking on the entirety of rape culture.

This is a remarkably self-assured debut from writer-director Emerald Fennell (who’s probably best known for acting on Call the Midwife and The Crown and for writing Killing Eve). It’s effectively a revenge thriller existing side-by-side with a romantic comedy, and those two stories don’t converse with each other at all until damn near the very end, even though they have the same protagonist. Initially, it seems that Cassie has devoted her entire life to her little scheme, shedding her aspirations, hobbies, and personality in much the way that an assassin would. It certainly appears that she’s been doing this for a while, as she has a little black book filled with dozens of tally marks representing her victims. But her story is actually surprisingly grounded. Far from existing on the edge of society, she’s instead living with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Jennifer Coolidge, both wonderfully heartfelt), and she enjoys a healthy friendship with her boss (Laverne Cox) at a humdrum cafe.

Promising Young Woman (CREDIT: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features)

When Cassie randomly crosses paths with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a pediatric surgeon and old med school classmate, her bisected story shoots forward in both directions. Ryan has a knack for cutting through her icy disposition and finding the heart that she never bothered to shed completely. Meanwhile, when he casually mentions another old classmate (Chris Lowell) who’s getting married, that sets Cassie’s revenge aspirations into overdrive, as she realizes that she now has a shot to go after the guy who started everything and all the people who enabled him. The mere mention of his name sets off horror-laden strings, and since horror movie techniques heighten hormone levels and thereby foster emotional connections, we’re right there with Cassie, her desires becoming our desires. But distressingly, her two main potential endpoints aren’t very compatible with each other, so I worry that she’s getting sloppy, and in fact she is. A happy ending is teased, but it looks pretty hard for her to avoid an option that will devastate so many people around her.

At this point in the review, I would really like to get into the ending, but I of course cannot do that without spoiling everything. And I would include a spoiler section, but the makers of this movie have quite reasonably requested that no spoilers be published until after the release date, and I’m happy to comply! So once December 25 rolls around, keep a lookout for some more in-depth thoughts. (12/30/20 EDIT: Now here’s the link to more in-depth thoughts.)

Promising Young Woman (CREDIT: Focus Features)

There will probably be a lot of talk about how Promising Young Woman is especially relevant in a post-#MeToo era, but a culture of rape and entitlement has existed for decades, centuries even. Cassie’s story is relevant, sure, but it’s also timeless, and at its core, it’s simply an interesting portrait of a fascinating individual. I truly felt like Cassie was my friend by the end of the movie. Her triumphs were my triumphs, her disappointments my disappointments. Throughout much of the movie, she wears a necklace that proves to be a totem. It’s one half of a split-heart design meant to be shared between BFFs. The other half did indeed belong to her deceased best friend, who is frequently discussed but never seen in the flesh. By the time the credits are rolling, we’re all sharing a piece of that other half.

Promising Young Woman is Recommended If You Like: Candy colors spiked with a jagged edge, Morbid jokes about pediatric surgery, Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind”

Grade: 5 out of 5 Reckonings