That delicate English rose Carey Mulligan smears her lipstick, slurs her words and stuffs a heaping helping of brimstone and treacle into your Christmas stocking with “Promising Young Woman,” a twisty and twisted tale of personal torment and revenge.
Torment is what her character, Cassandra, wears on her turning-30-looks-40 face — the broken, lost years of wandering since her med school career was derailed and life stopped making sense.
And revenge? Well, that’s what she’s out for, cruising the bars, playing too-drunk-to-stand until some “helpful” gentleman with a touch of gallantry offers to get her home.
But “my apartment is just a few blocks from here.” And “just one drink.”
And “you’re safe” and “You’re so beautiful” and on and on, not listening to her “No” and “stop” until she shows just how sober and just how much she hates “nice guys” who impose themselves on women whose alcohol or drug intake — willing or otherwise — has removed “consent.”
“Promising Young Woman” surfs on the fury of the judgement inherent in “They put themselves in danger, girls like that” and “just asking for it” from every “nice guy” and “nice girl” who stands by and lets sexual assault happen.
It’s a troubling, uneven revenge fantasy simmering with rage but awash in mental illness.
Cassie’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge) sees it, sometimes giving up on papering over her live-at-home daughter’s depression and aimlessness.
“What kind of person forgets her 30th birthday?”
Her Dad (Clancy Brown)? He seems to get it, gently encouraging anything this onetime-med student/now testy barista living under his roof does that seems “normal.”
Maybe “normal” will come from that “nice guy” former classmate (Bo Burnham) who recognizes her, blurts “Why are you working here?” and instantly regrets it, and takes a scathing look and worse and still clings to the hope that he’ll get her “real” number.
But as we’ve already seen Cassie use herself as bait for the likes of bros played by Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, heard her acrid outrage and wondered how far she takes her desire for vengeance, Dr. “Normal” seems like a long shot.
Cassie bats back-and-forth snark with her boss/pal (Laverne Cox, at her sassy-funny best) and sets her sights on Those Who Did Her and Others Wrong in College. Let the wild vengeful rumpus commence.
Only it never really does. As dark revenge fantasies go, this is no “Hard Candy” or “Thoroughbreds.” It’s a picture trapped on the horns of the “always blows up in your face” dilemma. Cassie is plainly obsessed, trapped and “a hot mess.”
She gets herself in the room with characters played by Alison Brie, Connie Britton and Alfred Molina, asks probing questions, hunting for answers, acknowledgement and remorse.
And if she doesn’t get those? Hell hath no fury…
Mulligan crushes this role with every measured, withering line-reading.
“We were KIDS!”
“If I hear that one more time.”
The movie is a bit of a female empowerment muddle, with promising young actress-turned writer-director Emerald Fennell rearing back as if to deliver a knock-out blow, and only grazing what she’s swinging at, often as not.
But she makes “Promising Young Woman” so consistently dark and foreboding that we never let our guard down, never get our hopes up and brace for the next moment that comes when “it’s time to pay the piper.”
MPA Rating: R for strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown and Alfred Molina.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Emerald Fennell. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:53