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.”