Warning: Light spoilers for Promising Young Woman below.
“Toxic” by Britney Spears is known for its unique pop sound and the pairing of the boom with strings. The track takes on a whole new persona when the strings are isolated, enhanced, and slowed down to a menacing crawl. It's perfect as the marquee tune for Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell. Cassie (Carey Mulligan) — like the orchestral “Toxic” — smartly slithers through the film with clarity, isolated purpose, and a foreboding presence. A stellar performance from Mulligan paired with an ambitious vision from Fennell comes together to create a story that’s a bold takedown of rape culture and those that defend it.
The story centers Cassie, a med school dropout who lives with her parents and works at a quaint coffee shop. Her life changed after her friend Nina is sexually assaulted, opting to leave school to take care of her. The grief from Nina’s trauma overwhelms Cassie years later, emboldening her to take down men taking advantage of drunk women at bars. When Nina’s assaulter finally returns stateside, Cassie meticulously crafts a plan to enact revenge on him and those who protected him.
The beauty of Promising Young Woman lies in the fact that it’s clear in its convictions. Fennell's script has a clear point of view and is unapologetic about it. There are moments where the story re-iterates the common defenses surrounding rape culture (ex. “She was asking for it,” “well if she wasn’t so drunk.”) that strike the balance of not being too heavy-handed while simultaneously feeling earnest. Fennell’s experience as Killing Eve season 2’s showrunner works here, with her ability to weave different tones ranging from mild to murderous with ease. This is further enhanced with a knockout performer like Mulligan in the driver seat. Mulligan plays Cassie with a level of dry control that ratchets up to terrifying in certain scenes. She toes the line of (understandably) unhinged in her delivery, making for an enthralling watch.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Promising Young Woman will be how Cassie enacts her revenge at the end. There’s a level of gratuitousness in one particular scene that feels overdone and unnecessary, considering the care the film takes in it’s handling of the topic of women’s abuse. The gut reaction to the ending might be unsatisfaction when walking out of the theater. But even in the unpredictability of it’s ending, the film doubles down in what it wants to say. That level of balls-to-the-wall energy is admirable and sets Fennell up as a voice to listen for in the future.
Promising Young Woman swings for the fences in its delivery, and for the most part connects. There will certainly be ripe discussions on how the film concludes and whether Cassie’s arc is the right one. But what’s pleasant about it as a piece of art is how it confidently asserts its voice, even with potential mixed reactions. Not to worry: Promising Young Woman mostly delivers on its promise — but it doesn’t care either way.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue