Carey Mulligan

Is Promising Young Woman the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Promising Young Woman is nominated for three of the four “big” Oscar categories: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. It is not nominated for Best Actor for reasons that are either apparent to you already or will become quickly apparent.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Oscars. They’re infuriating for the reasons everyone finds them infuriating, but I think they do a great job of uniting people around movies that are worth seeing. There are better ways to do this, no doubt, but I always appreciate the season before the Oscars when there’s a “crunch” to see everything, if you’re the sort of person who does that sort of thing. I am, if for no other reason than it gives me some extra justification to get mad when they do something dumb at the actual ceremony.

Despite all that, I don’t really have any interest in the “expected” winners. There’s a whole world of betting and tracking as people watch the other awards that lead up to the Oscars and I just cannot find the enthusiasm for it. More power to you if you can, but somehow even though I know they’re a messy disaster more often than anything else, I just love the big show.

I haven’t seen everything in any of three categories Promising Young Woman is nominated for, but this doesn’t seem like the kind of movie the Academy goes for, even when they try. There is a certain logic to them going against their own type, and I would love to be wrong, but this seems like something that gets nominated to show they “get it” but that’s all. It’s a revenge story, which is already tough for certain voters, but it’s also a “Me Too” movie with a message. I’ve read a dozen reviews and the same terms come up again and again as people try to compartmentalize this story.

We should start with the reviews. The AV Club’s review is worth your time and a great place to begin critical discussion. It’s a well-written review that unlocks a lot about the film, but it also argues that it isn’t as original as it thinks. Almost all of the criticism around Promising Young Woman either makes this argument or calls it overly cruel, if not in so many words. Most of the second kind comes from a certain type of reviewer that isn’t really worth discussing seriously, but I think it’s worth mentioning if only in contrast. The arguments seem to be either than this is unrealistically conceived or that it’s overly proud of treading ground that’s been done.

Carey Mulligan plays Cassie Thomas, a woman who dropped out of med school after her friend Nina was raped and the school did not pursue an investigation towards the rapist. Cassie now works at a coffee shop and lives at home. Her parents continuously hope she’ll start dating again and get back to the path she was on. There are scenes to reinforce this even if we might assume it. Director and writer Emerald Fennell leaves no ambiguity here, though we should talk about the role of ambiguity in the story of what Cassie spends her nights doing.

The “revenge” of Promising Young Woman is Cassie’s plan to get back at Al Monroe (Chris Lowell, from many things but most of all, to me, Bash from GLOW) who raped Nina. Al seems to be a full-on caricature of idiotic, entitled men, down to the Facebook post about how his future wife being a bikini model is great. We don’t see much of Al, but we don’t really need to. What we do see tells a clear story. Cassie spends her nights tricking men into taking her home, seemingly drunk but actually sober, to shame them over trying to take advantage of a woman who can’t consent. She’s on this path now, med school isn’t part of the plan.

We see a few of these encounters, but just enough to understand the way they go most nights. During one, Cassie adds a notch to a page full of black-and-red notches. We can infer what the red might mean and this strand of ambiguity is a nice one. One of the great strengths of Promising Young Woman is the willingness to sometimes show us the scale of Cassie’s undertaking. We only see a handful of these, but after one she tells a would-be rapist that there are several women across town who do the same thing. The guy doubts her, but looks just long enough that he wonders if it’s true. There’s no suggestion it actually is true, but it’s something to think about.

The thing is, what actually happens in Promising Young Woman is only half the movie. The other half happens when you realize that this character is only afraid of the suggestion that other people might be tricking him. The realization should be a dozen other things, all of which are more important lessons to learn. Most people Cassie interacts with learn something about rape and consequences, but they don’t learn what she wants them to learn. They learn to be afraid of specifics, not to engage with the larger issue.

As powerful as the message is and the moments Cassie suggests it strongly to the people she acts upon, there’s some stuff in the way. Some scenes are disjointed from what comes before and after, especially a scene where Cassie smashes a car with a tire iron. It’s great visually and it’s nice to see some of the simmering anger come to the surface, but it seems to mostly be designed to show us what Cassie is capable of and how she operates. The catharsis is real, but a scene with dozens of slash marks shows us more about how far she’s willing to go than any violence you put on screen.

These are small gripes. I was really fascinated by Promising Young Woman, most especially by how Carey Mulligan chose to play Cassie. If you just imagine the premise you probably imagine a specific character, but Mulligan shows us the steps between med school and nightly shaming sessions in how Cassie can’t really look at most people and doesn’t really speak up. She’s awkward in daytime scenes and when a confrontation doesn’t go as expected. These are choices and they tell us even more about who Cassie is. She’s decided dedicating her life to revenge and to a cause is worth it, but she’s conflicted to some degree. Not about what happens, but about what’s happened to her.

Cassie eventually meets Ryan (Bo Burnham) from school who has changed now and is a “nice guy” and wants to date her. Burnham’s established a persona as a nice weirdo and it serves the character here as he has to respond to Cassie’s unexplainable behavior. He runs into her on a night out and, at first glance, she appears to be on a date. It’s more complicated than that, obviously, but the realization that she can’t have a normal life and keep doing this is part of a series of changes for Cassie.

Changes may be too strong a word. Cassie has committed to an ideal that she thinks is important. She’s enacting change at an individual level in the only way she thinks will work. Some of these moments seem to go too far for some viewers, including an especially hard-to-watch scene with Alison Brie as an old classmate or Connie Britton as the dean of the school. Both are memorable and show how Cassie is willing to escalate things to get a point across. People have proven as a whole that they will not listen or change and so she’s decided to enforce the message much more specifically.

I guess I could see how this could not work for a person. It’s all bright colors but odd angles, designed to make things appear “fun” at first glance but never actually be fun. Cassie’s life is brutal because she feels the world has chosen brutality. I don’t think there’s an argument that could say she’s wrong. These are real issues, and even when she’s “successful” there is a strong suggestion that even her victims may not actually get the right perspective on things. That’s going to be depressing for a lot of folks, but it should be. I kept seeing “unrealistic” in reviews, but I’d really challenge that opinion. It’s fair to ask if this is a good way to tell this story, but this just doesn’t seem as wild to me as it seems to some people. I think it’s worth your time, especially if you look for the quiet moments and see Cassie’s character as a little more involved than the character some people seem to be imagining.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yeah, it’s better than the second Borat movie. It’s not really fair to do that comparison, but that’s the thing we do in this space. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm presents a different kind of sarcastic critique about feminism and women in American society than the house-on-fire approach Promising Young Woman does.

Is it the best movie of all time? I don’t think so, but it is better than the reductive taglines people keep adding to it make it sound like it is. I went into this without reading any reviews and it really surprised me. I expected the message to land, but not amidst as many complicating elements. The love story is worth following and the performances mostly work. I really do recommend it. It doesn’t need to be anything more than this, I think this is the exact way to tell this story. It’s okay that generational love story In the Mood for Love is a better movie. That’s also true of a lot of other stuff you should actively engage with, so go do it and really think about what you’re watching. Not what you think you’re watching, but what’s actually happening behind those moments.

You can watch Promising Young Woman on Amazon Prime ($5.99) or YouTube ($5.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.