James Jay Edwards

Promising Young Woman Is a Kinder, Gentler Revenge Story

(Promising Young Woman, Focus Features)

James Jay Edwards reviews Promising Young Woman, a black comedy revenge film written and directed by Emerald Fennell, starring Cassandra Thomas. (Focus Features)


Hollywood revenge stories come in all shapes and sizes. Usually they’re brutal and violent, but sometimes they’re quirky and eccentric. Promising Young Woman falls squarely into the second category.

Promising Young Woman is about a medical school dropout named Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan from Inside Llewyn Davis) who, by day, works in a coffee shop. By night, she goes out to clubs and pretends to be inebriated, gets “helpful” guys to take her home, then lowers the boom on the would-be rapist. When one of her old med school friends named Ryan (Bo Burnham, writer/director of the terrific Eight Grade) happens to stop by her coffee shop, she reconnects with him—and all of her other med school “friends.” She uses these new contacts to launch a revenge scheme against the people who caused her to drop out in the first place. But things get complicated when she realizes that she actually likes Ryan.


(Promising Young Woman, theatrical release poster, Focus Features)

Writer/director Emerald Fennell cut her teeth writing for television shows like Killing Eve and Drifters, and this experience has prepared her well for her feature film directorial debut. Promising Young Woman is billed as a comedy, but there’s not much about it that generates laughter, and what humor is present is so dark that it’s black. It would be right at home being compared to A Simple Plan or Jawbreaker. The laughs are there, but they almost make the audience uncomfortable for finding them funny.

Promising Young Woman is a revenge movie, through and through. Like most revenge movie protagonists, Cassie suffered a traumatic experience in her past that has knocked something in her brain loose. At the beginning of the movie, she takes out her revenge on unsuspecting strangers. When those directly responsible for her trauma enter the picture again, she kicks it into high gear with a clever and detailed plan of action that falls somewhere in between Ms. 45 and Kill Bill, with just a smidge of The Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave just to keep the bad guys firmly in their place.


(Promising Young Woman, Focus Features)

For a revenge movie, however, Promising Young Woman is not very violent. For most of her deeds, Cassie’s revenge is subtle and precautionary, sometimes serving more to gather information than to actually harm the person. And Cassie is not without a soul; when her “victims” are truly repentant, she does show mercy. That’s where Promising Young Woman turns into an unconventional revenge movie. The hero’s heart isn’t completely destroyed. Not completely.

Although Cassie is cunning, she is still damaged. She drifts rudderlessly through the first part of the movie, a quick-witted girl who cleverly and confidently uses her past experiences to teach barflies and frat boys the lessons of life. When her life gains purpose again after bumping into Ryan, she becomes more unstable, yet finds her mission. With nothing left to lose, she goes to work. And in that work, she finds a bit of redemption, even if it comes in the form of vengeance. It’s quite a character arc.


(Promising Young Woman, Focus Features)

Of course, there is a cute little love story to Promising Young Woman as well between Cassie and Ryan. Predictably, it goes south fast, just as Cassie was beginning to feel happiness for the first time in a long time. But now we’re getting into spoiler territory. And solving the mystery of Promising Young Woman along with the main character is part of the fun.

Promising Young Woman is going to wind up being one of those movies that slowly builds up a huge cult following over the next several years. So, see it now, just so you can say you did.



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