Whatever its flaws, "Promising Young Woman" really goes for it, and that makes it thrilling to watch.
The wayward tone of writer/director Emerald Fennell's even-darker-than-it-seems satire can be confounding: "Hold up, it's also a romantic comedy?" is what I wrote in my notes about halfway through. But it finally becomes clear that the movie's all-over-the-map quality corresponds to the fascinating complexity of its revenge-minded protagonist, who has the same name as Cassandra, the Greek prophet who always uttered the truth but was never believed. Is she, as one character asks, "a psycho?" Is she a superhero? Is she even real?
As played by Carey Mulligan ("Inside Llewyn Davis"), Cassandra is a barista who goes to nightclubs, pretends to be drunk, allows herself to be taken home by men and then snaps out of the pretense to confront them about why they think it's OK to assault women who are in no shape to consent to sex. She tells them the truth, in other words, but will they listen?
Not one bit of that scenario is funny, and Fennell's script registers outrage at the skepticism Cassandra gets, from both women and men, when she seeks punishment for creeps who rape (and worse). But Fennell also has a sly sense of humor, which emerges in Cassandra's acidic remarks and in the romcom scenes.
For instance, when Cassandra drops her suspicion of men to date a persistent customer (Bo Burnham, who wrote and directed the extraordinary "Eighth Grade"), she's sucked in by his self-deprecating pickup line, "Would you be interested in a friendship and I would be secretly pining for you the whole time?"
A shocking drama one minute and a riotous comedy the next, "Promising Young Woman" guides us to expect anything, which is to say that like a lot of good works of art, it teaches us how to watch/read it while we are doing so. It's designed to keep pulling the rug out from under us, and if you're up for that experience, the confidence with which Fennell uses wild musical selections (Britney Spears' "Toxic," Charli XCX's "Boys") and jarring editing to draw us in is exhilarating.
So is the bold performance by Mulligan, whose Cassandra openly spits in a customer's cup of coffee while she's serving it to him — and that's not even the biggest surprise in that scene. Mulligan's intelligence and clarity have been clear in numerous films that didn't find wide audiences, but "Promising" seems destined to fix her in moviegoers' memories because, in concert with Fennell, her choices are so confidently, uniquely right.
We're meant to puzzle over her behavior long after the movie tells us why she does what she does (I'd argue Fennell draws that out too long). But, as she's staring down hooting construction workers or reading the riot act to a clueless college administrator (Connie Britton), this "Promising Young Woman" knows exactly what she's doing and exactly why people refuse to believe her.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
Promising Young Woman
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: R for strong language, violence, thematic material.
Where: In wide release and on demand.