Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Promising Young Woman (2020)

The Oscars may be over, but I'm still pluggin' away at the Oscar Film Journal.  Because the Oscars got one award very wrong this year from where I sit....

I'll be reviewing the other side of this particular issue a bit later, but right now I'm focused on what I felt was the best of the Best Picture nominees, Emerald Fennell's explosive directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan in a career performance that, goddammit, should've won her the Best Actress award.  I've been a low-key fan of Mulligan's for about a decade now, after her dripping-with-sadness turn as Sissy in Steve McQueen's Shame, and again after her venom-spitting supporting role in Inside Llewyn Davis (I still often quote the phrase "Because you are SHIT!").  Mulligan is a veritable chameleon, as evidenced by the fact that until this past week I'd never heard her speak in her native English accent (which is as proper as that of Sherlock Holmes).  But her performance as Cassie in Promising Young Woman is a force of nature; she absolutely commands the screen in every frame, seething with righteous anger beneath a veneer of dark sarcasm.

If you're not familiar with the premise by now, Promising Young Woman is about a former med school student who dropped out after her best friend Nina was sexually assaulted by a classmate, and now roams bars and nightclubs pretending to be fall-down drunk so men will take her home.  But once she gets there she hits them with the truth, hoping to hold a mirror up to their complicity in perpetuating rape culture.  She reconnects with another classmate who seems to actually be a decent fellow, but when he mentions that Nina's rapist is now getting married, she hatches a plan to punish everyone involved.  
Fennell's exploitation-film-inspired script is rife with black comedy but also poignant commentary on how society (both men and women) has excused inappropriate male behavior for decades, using all-too familiar lines like "He was just a kid," "I didn't want to ruin his whole life," "Being accused is what men fear most," etc.  The film shows us how truly ugly and ubiquitous rape culture is, portraying would-be attackers not as shadowy figures who jump out of dark alleys, but as everyday "nice guys" who convince themselves they're just trying to help, or they're “connecting” with their barely conscious victims.  It's almost like a reverse American Psycho, itself a treatise on toxic masculinity, but this time it's the woman who preys on the clean-cut young professionals.  Fennell peppered the cast with likable comic actors to hammer home the point that a predator can be anyone, can look like one of your friends, can arrive in the guise of a polished gentleman.  It's a deviously crafted piece of storytelling with a truly relevant message at its heart.

But it's Carey Mulligan who really pulls it all off; we spend basically the entire film with her and despite being a very damaged, resentful character she never loses our sympathy.  Even in the first act when we aren't totally clear what's driving her, Mulligan makes the character relatable, witty, intimidating but oddly charming.  I'd put this performance in the same class as Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth; both exemplify a female protagonist who dominates the screen and the story.  In both cases what seemed to be a surefire Best Actress winner lost to a lesser performance; Blanchett eventually won two Oscars, the latter of which for Blue Jasmine felt like a proper recompense.  Hopefully Carey will have the opportunity to play an equally career-defining character in the future and get the recognition she deserved here.  

Regardless though, Promising Young Woman is a provocative, thrilling, often funny, often upsetting allegory about a social issue that has plagued us as a species for far too long.  Shot over a scant 23 days(?!), its grindhouse roots serve as a jumping-off point for much deeper character and theme exploration.  By the finale we find ourselves confronted with an uncomfortable but necessary discussion, served up with diabolical flair by a prodigious first-time writer/director and featuring an instantly iconic performance.

I give the film **** out of ****.

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