Rating: 2.5 out of 5
To say the current era of filmmaker’s attempts at being “political” within the conglomerate infrastructure are miserable failures is an absolute understatement. If, since film’s beginning, filmmakers have had a difficulty reconciling politics with industry, then this generation has completely submitted to the latter and only makes films out of ideological inclinations, attempting to capture the fleeting, malleable zeitgeist of our culture. Post-ideology is a preposterous impossibility but there is no longer sovereign terrain for filmmakers in which to make genuinely daring works, and when they happen, it feels as though their films are a byproduct of the system’s discharge, happening rather than trough a deliberate effort to make something fresh and provocative, incidental ruptures and fragments of an overarching networks runoff.
A Promising Young Woman carries itself as though it’s both those things (that is fresh and provocative), when not only is it neither, it’s an embarrassment to its own genre even as it makes claims to subvert and rewrite the rules of the rape-revenge fantasy. Rather the film is a commercial product that looks, feels and acts like an independent film just so it’s not conflated with a big-budget film in spite of its cast and production values, so in the act of simulating both empathy with victims and the broader history of indie filmmaking in general, the filmmaking eats from the stinking carcass of our depraved, exploitative landscape.
The film begins with Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) being taken home by a douchebag in a suit who intends to rape her while she’s passed out drunkenly. It’s implied that she has been taking out predatory men such as him for a while, though it will be only later in the film we learn about her motivations. The basic strain of the film between her nice guy almost-boyfriend (an extraordinary performance by Bo Burnham) and the men she kills is repetitive for large swaths of the movie, never justifying the films padded runtime and plodding pacing. Though the casting deserves commendation for its use of late-aughts and early 2010’s familiar faces, there are only a handful of scenes that strike with novelty for the genre and with intensity in storytelling. When the scope of Cassandra’s revenge begins to expand, not just to physically abusive men but rather to complicit women as well, the implications are radical and horrific as she stoops to increasing spiritual lows to exact her revenge, however, this is a footnote to the rest of the film which follows a predictable, ultimately unsatisfying and stale trajectory.
The aesthetics of the film are entirely ugly, it feels like a student film in so many ways, from the uninhabited sets to the gaudy and unnecessary chromatic scheme, to the overblown and hammy performances, which even from the brilliance of the casting, which again is undeniable, consistently offers diminishing returns for the viewer in terms of quality and care. Everyone feels like they are too self-assured in every facet of the film, and though it’s heart is in the right place, everything either feels tacky or all too reserved and trite for anything in the film to make a strong impression.
So A Promising Young Woman is not a complete waste but it comes damn close to being one. This is a premise especially in this era that deserved better than petty provocations and arrogant flippancy towards its material. One never gets the feeling that any characters are walking across the screen, just hollow props to uphold the fickle structure of a film that thinks it’s saying profound statements but knows, deep within itself, that it’s hollow, vapid and guilty of the sin of many rape-revenge fantasies: removing the victim. Instead we are treated to a weak portrayal of survivor’s guilt with uninspired performances and dreary aesthetics. Perhaps not as promising as it make itself out to be.