‘Promising Young Woman’ Takes All Your Favourite People And Makes Them Terrible
Get ready to see Seth Cohen in a whole new light.
To do good comedy, you’ve got to be able to go to some pretty dark places; to be comfortable making our deepest fears and anxieties the butt of the joke. It’s this unique skill that makes the comedy-to-thriller pivots of icons like Robin Williams or Steve Carrell so compelling.
But in Promising Young Woman, it’s not a single comedian or rom-com stalwart making the jump to something darker — it’s an entire cast.
Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault. It also contains spoilers for Promising Young Woman.
The film follows the story of Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, a woman on the cusp of turning 30 and dealing with trauma caused by the brutal rape and, presumably, death of her best friend, Nina.
Over the course of the film, Cassie channels the all-consuming rage at this devastating injustice into her own unique brand of vigilante justice, enacted against self-professed “nice guys” who take advantage of vulnerable, inebriated women like Nina on a nightly basis.
Promising Young Woman is, for all intents and purposes, a thriller. And though a deep sense of foreboding permeates the film, a thread of dark humour elicits genuine laugh-out-loud moments, slicing through the tension at exactly the right moment. (The extended dance break to Paris Hilton’s ‘Stars Are Blind’ is particularly good at totally upending the tense moments that precede it.)
That’s due, in large part, to shrewd, captivating writing and Wes Anderson-esque set design. But that delicate balance is also achieved through some deliberate, calculated and, as a result, totally unsettling casting choices. The opening credits alone are a veritable roll call of some of the biggest names in comedy, drama and romance. They float in and out of the story without much fanfare, the likes of Adam Brody, Alison Brie, and Molly Shannon there one minute and gone the next.
From the get-go, there’s a feeling that everyone’s a bit out of place, but yet that they’re all exactly where they’re supposed to be. That they’re there to make a point.
Brody, for example, is the focus of the film’s opening scenes, his wholesome, Seth Cohen-esque charm juxtaposed with the palpable desperation of slippery, skeezy friends. It’s briefly comforting to find he’s still a good guy whose only concern is helping a drunk girl get home safe. Until he’s not. There’s something viscerally uncomfortable about seeing the guy who made “Chrismukkah” mainstream pawing at the near-catatonic body of a woman he just dragged home from a bar.
Later in the piece, Max Greenfield appears as Joe, the college buddy of Nina’s rapist and budding murderer, Al Monroe. The high-energy smarminess that saw us root for him as the eccentric but well-meaning Schmidt in New Girl is still there, but it’s darker now. Almost unflinchingly, he assures a man who’s just killed a woman that none of it was his fault, then helps him burn her body.
Equally, Connie Britton — the coach’s wife or the Queen of Country, depending on the Connie era with which you most closely identify — appears briefly as a university dean who’s spent a large chunk of her career giving rapists the “benefit of the doubt”, lest she destroy a young man’s life every time an accusation “like this” is made. Only when the safety of her own daughter is threatened does the maternal force that’s made Britton one of the world’s most beloved TV actors surface, and it’s for that reason that it’s possible to muster some sympathy for her in the way we would for Tami Taylor or Rayna James.
In the film’s most confronting scene, which plays out unedited and over several minutes, Al, played by GLOW’s Chris Lowell, suffocates Cassie, pressing a pillow over her face with his knee. It’s a monstrous act, but there’s something disarming about the boyish way Lowell carries himself that almost makes it feel unintentional, even as he hysterically drives his knee into her face.
None of that is to say it’s easy to root for Cassie, either — in spite of her deliberately feminine styling and the sanitised quaintness of her surroundings, she’s aloof and rude and even, at times, vulgar. Mulligan’s deep, measured speech and the intensity of her presence somehow makes her more challenging to observe against the perkiness of Alison Brie or Molly Shannon.
(For her part, Brie’s only real crime is being the most insufferable version of herself.)
Just this week, Mulligan responded to Variety’s review of the film — which suggested she isn’t “hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse” and posited that perhaps somebody more classically beautiful, like Margot Robbie, would be a better choice — saying she was puzzled by the publication’s choice to critique her appearance in a film that deliberately dismantles the performative nature of female beauty.
And that’s what this film does so well: it gives our prejudices a face — a familiar one — and asks us to wrestle with them in real time. Faced with the same situation, would we be more inclined to give these people a pass, purely because we know they’re something else?
Promising Young Woman makes all of your favourite people terrible, but it’s precisely because nobody’s laughing now that it’s so hard to look away.
(Images courtesy of Roadshow Films)
Kristen Amiet is Junkee’s Managing Editor of Branded Content and diehard Connie Britton fan. She tweets (mostly about Connie Britton) at @krissiamiet.