The serial-killer comedy Promising Young Woman is so full of hatred and cheating, it deserves to be called the first movie of the Biden-Harris era. More than that president-elect photo with the vacant smile in front of haloed backdrop signage, or that Vogue cover shot of Harris in sneakers, it’s Promising Young Woman that conveys ideas about revenge and cultural takeover.
British actress Carey “Crybaby” Mulligan plays Cassie (short for the prophetess Cassandra), who sets out to punish men for a BFF’s date-rape. Pretending girly helplessness, she recalls those pink-hatted Hillary Clinton cry-bullies of 2016. That’s the slyest aspect of director Emerald Fennell’s angry satire. Fennell’s facetious pop-art visual style loses its mirth as the film slips into an attack on the patriarchy, justifying Cassie’s plan to dominate other people’s lives while sacrificing herself — the cutting-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face method seen in COVID culture and politics.
Pouty Cassie combines the traits of Hillary, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Lady Macbeth, yet Mulligan’s miscasting (she’s 35 years old) exposes the film’s deceit. Mulligan’s poor-poor-pitiful-me shtick feels based on a lifetime of bellyaching.
In this patronizing feminist fantasy about getting even, one victim of Cassie’s sting operation is nerdy Christopher Mintz-Plasse (from Superbad). Cassie berates him, saying, “Every week I go to a club, and every week I act like I’m too drunk to stand. And every fucking week a guy like you comes over and asks if I’m okay!” He argues back: “What do you want from me? To say that I’m an asshole? Okay, I’m an asshole.” Fennell’s flat-footed dialogue is comedy for cucks. Each male character Cassie encounters is similarly dorky (even the angry black guy). It’s a misandrist version of the libidinous disco song “It’s Raining Men,” only this is anti-male, anti-sex. Not phobic, just anti.
Dark comic nihilism like this has appealed to hipsters ever since Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, but now it resembles regime change — confirming a major fault of the indie film movement that traded populist sentiment for elitist cynicism. Boutique indie Focus Features, the distributor of Promising Young Woman, always specializes in PC subjects, especially about gender. Cassie’s coffee-shop workmate is transsexual Gail, played by transsexual Laverne Cox. “I like you” Cassie says, declaring herself an ally despite the fact that Gail is demonically hostile and wants no one to be happy; she’s a malign muse. Cassie feels simpatico (it’s not really dating) with a warped pediatric surgeon named Ryan (“I can’t stop thinking about you spitting in my coffee,” he flirts). As played by Bo Burnham, writer-director of the also malevolent teen drama Eighth Grade, Ryan signals the wicked mania (oddly suggestive of abortion) that develops as Cassie embarks on the most treacherous phase of her self-righteous plan.
Shouting “You sociopath!” while tracking down her quarry, Cassie displays typical left-wing projection. Hollywood doesn’t mind sociopathy for the right cause. In this case, it’s go-to scoundrel Alfred Molina, who confesses, “I’ve been waiting for my reckoning.”
This sense of reckoning also complements the new political order, although it surely derives from the pop-culture decadence of the TV series Breaking Bad, which condoned twisted revenge. There may be some zeitgeist truth to this. After all, our era’s greatest filmmaker, Mexico’s Julian Hernandez, made Tattoo of Revenge, a near-masterpiece that reproved this sick payback genre by thoroughly exploring the moral crises of victim, victor, and observer. Hernandez’s avenging angel hunted down rapists and publicly humiliated them for a modern media project that became self-critical, unlike pathetic Cassie’s politically motivated final attack.
Two years ago, I found reason to shift my antipathy toward Mulligan, after her surprising performance in Wildlife: Somebody lit a fire under her. Playing a young mother her own age, she gave a palpable edge to the character’s resentment about her bad marriage choice and lost youth. Mulligan’s nervous, trembling fear conveyed the spiritual state of post-feminist women who feel self-defeated and angry.
Cassie hides that truth, and so the non-ironic title of Promising Young Woman feels like a preview of Biden culture deception in which we are expected to deny the evidence before our eyes and of recent memory. By the end we’re meant to concede, to approve of Cassie’s entire nasty scheme of career and character defamation. Naïve readers who deny politics and want just-for-fun movies don’t realize that politics are inseparable from popular culture, especially considering the way films are financed and the attitudes they promote. Fennell’s cute sarcasm is actually hideous, extending the Christine Blasey Ford playbook, uniting us in caustic cynicism.