Promising Young Woman Sets a Ravishing Trap

Emerald Fennell’s debut movie is a revenge thriller explicitly designed to subvert assumptions about femininity and serious works of art.

Film still of Carey Mulligan reading a book
Courtesy of Focus Features

There’s a trick at the core of Promising Young Woman, a ravishing, lethal revenge thriller starring Carey Mulligan that marks the directorial debut of the writer and actor Emerald Fennell. The film’s visual style is intoxicatingly extra—part Barbie DreamHouse, part Instagram aesthetic, part David LaChapelle music video. Much of it is defined by a coding of color and texture: pinks and blues, warm fuzziness and cool precision. Cassie (played by Mulligan), a 30-year-old med-school dropout, wears fluffy sweaters and rose-adorned dresses to her day job as a barista, but she’s hostile and sharp underneath them, a brass knuckle in an angora mitten. Ever since her once-promising career as a doctor was derailed by a traumatic event, she’s forged a new calling: At night, she goes out to clubs, pretends to be wasted, and waits for “nice” men to take the bait. Cassie is feminine and remorseless, and the movie wants viewers to wonder why that particular combination of qualities might be so disconcerting. What if the most terrifying thing a woman can do is subvert the assumptions people make about her?

Cassie, Fennell told me in a Zoom call this month, looks the way the world wants women to look, “which is pretty and soft and pink. But underneath it all is a boiling pit of rage, I suppose.” She’s a construction, and a device. Like Cassie, Fennell has long blond hair and a taste for the macabre—while acting in the BBC series Call the Midwife, she published horror books for children, and as the showrunner of Killing Eve’s second season, she devised some gruesome antics for the series’s psychopathic glamazon assassin, Villanelle. Before casting Mulligan in Promising Young Woman, Fennell sent her a playlist and a mood board alongside the script to convey the spirit of the movie, because while she intended to portray an antiheroic vengeance mission, she also wanted it to feel like a woman’s journey. “So much of what we’re used to in these kinds of movies is seeing women behave and [be filmed] … like men.” Promising Young Woman’s bubblegum aesthetic is an expression of Fennell’s particular tastes. But it was also crucial, she thought, that the film be visually appealing to audiences, “because, like Cassie, it’s a trap. So it needs to look like the thing it’s not, like she does.”

The film’s premise arose from a simple question: If a woman in real life wanted to take revenge on men who prey on inebriated women, what would that look like? Fennell told me that the first time she could envision the movie was when she imagined a scene that anchors the trailer: An ostensibly stumbling, slurring woman is “rescued” by a man who escorts her to his house, plies her with more alcohol, and begins assaulting her while murmuring platitudes about how pretty she is. Early in the film, the guy is played by The OC’s Adam Brody, the platonic ideal of a twinkly non-threat. “What are you doing?” Cassie mumbles, while he hushes her and takes off her underwear. “Wait.” He tells her she’s safe and carries on. Suddenly, she sits up straight, sober as a heart attack. “Hey,” she says. “I said, What are you doing?”

From Left: Actor Carey Mulligan, writer-director Emerald Fennell, actor Laverne Cox, and actor Bo Burnham on the set of Promising Young Woman, a Focus Features release. (Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features)

Fennell is 35; she came of age during the aughts, when raunch culture was ascendant and the idea of alcohol impairing someone’s ability to consent to sex hadn’t entered pop-cultural consciousness. She remembers watching reality shows in which “girls would wake up and not know what had happened the night before, and it was like a twist, like a shocker. It was never treated seriously.” She’s also interested in “good people doing bad things” and the way a culture can not only permit ugly behavior but even support it. When it comes to “he said, she said” allegations, she told me, “what’s so disturbing to me is that you so often … find both [parties] are saying the same thing happened; they just felt very differently about it.” The genius of Cassie’s ruse is that it forces the men into a confrontation with themselves: Why are they so horrified that the person they’re groping isn’t blackout drunk after all?

The movie’s hyperreality and its take on sexual politics feel unmistakably contemporary, but its pop-cultural cues hint at a reckoning with the recent past. I won’t reveal too much, but the event that unmoored Cassie happened almost a decade ago. Songs by Britney Spears (an orchestral cover of “Toxic”), the Spice Girls, and even Rodgers and Hammerstein are meticulously placed in the background of key moments. In the film’s most joyful scene, Cassie and her new boyfriend, Ryan (Bo Burnham), dance in a drugstore to Paris Hilton’s 2006 reggae-pop number “Stars Are Blind,” a kitschy hit by an icon of hyperfemininity whose sex tape was allegedly sold without her consent and watched by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. “I’ve always loved that song,” Fennell sighed.

In the “Stars Are Blind” scene, Cassie wears pink and Ryan wears blue. The colors recur throughout their relationship, subtly coding them as different creatures even in their most intimate moments. But the film also employs pink throughout to play with people’s assumptions about certain kinds of women and certain kinds of art. Fennell notes with satisfaction that her art director was Michael Perry, who once worked on the 1990s TV series Sweet Valley High. “So much of [Promising Young Woman] is a dark comedy really,” she told me, “and one that’s designed to be pleasurable and misleadingly diverting and colorful and distracting.” She thinks people still tend to have “a very fixed idea of what denotes something serious … and it’s usually kind of gritty and real and gray.” Art that sends off stereotypically feminine signals is too easily interpreted as frivolous, even when its power is hiding in plain sight. “You can like Britney Spears and multicolored manicures,” Fennell said, “and still be dangerous.”