Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 11, 2021)
When one thinks about movies that earn Christmas releases, one assumes one will find warm family fare. One doesn’t think of efforts like 2020’s Promising Young Woman, but as a capper to the weirdest year on memory, Hollywood figured December 25 made total sense as the opening date for a dark character thriller.
Now 30, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) dropped out of medical school years ago. Now she lives with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) while she works at a coffee shop.
Cassie enjoys a secret side, though, as she visits bars and pretends to be drunk. She lures in “nice guys” who offer to help her but instead attempt to have their way with her. During these trysts, Cassie eventually reveals her game and teaches these men a lesson.
Why does Cassie exact this form of feminist revenge? Mainly because her lifelong BFF Nina suffered a horrible fate during their shared time at med school, and Cassie seeks spiritual retribution for these actions.
Cassie attempts final payback for Nina’s treatment but encounters a complication when charming Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) – a former classmate – romances her. Cassie finds herself confronted with a desire to continue her vengeful path versus the potential to live a more normal personal life.
As always, I prefer to avoid spoilers, so I won’t offer any specifics about how this film goes. Suffice it to say that Woman follows a tough to anticipate path, and also that one should not anticipate a happy ending.
The latter area should seem patently obvious no more than 10 minutes into Woman. Yes, when Cassie develops a romance with Ryan, one can foresee a version of the story that goes all Happily Ever After. However, the movie’s opening makes it abundantly clear that writer/director Emerald Fennell won’t take that “easy out”.
And let’s be clear: given the movie’s tone from the outset, any plot path that leads Cassie to a blissful, romantic finale would seem like a complete copout. Woman could opt for a less dark ending than what we find, but anything less than a gut punch would seem phony.
Not that one should expect realism from Woman, as it presents something of an arch approach to the subject. Fennell presents some of the material in a nearly camp manner, and a tone of black comedy crops up throughout the movie.
However, Fennell leavens the darkly amusing winks with real trauma – though not the graphic brutality one might expect. Any viewers who anticipate a violent, bloody revenge thriller will leave Woman disappointed, as it leaves most of that material to the imagination.
Indeed, the film doesn’t even really reveal what Cassie does to the “nice guys” who try to take advantage of her. We get a couple of those episodes but not much real clarity about their resolution.
That’s fine with me, as I like the fact Cassie’s punitive measures remain implied rather than shown. Woman packs enough of a punch that it doesn’t need to resort to cheap titillation to impact the viewer.
I suspect some will bring a kneejerk POV to Woman and view it as nothing more than man-hating feminist propaganda, and the film certainly does make men look bad. However, it avoids simplistic moralizing and implicates women as part of the problem as well, mainly due to the events that sent Cassie and Nina from med school.
Yes, males come across worse in Woman than females do, but no one escapes unscathed. The film takes a strong look at how society as a whole fails women and lets no one off the hook.
Even our lead doesn’t get to take an easy path, as Woman refuses to paint Cassie in a simplistic light. In other hands, Cassie would become a pure, admirable avenging angel, but here, we find nothing of the sort.
As written by Fennell, Cassie becomes a massively troubled character, one stuck in a form of arrested development. Like Batman, she acts against “villains” due to her desire for revenge, but also like the Dark Knight, she never seems to take much satisfaction from her pursuit of justice.
In other words, Cassie provides a deeply disturbed character, one who clearly thinks her acts of retribution will bring her the clarity she craves, but also one who seems too lost to ever emerge from her fog. The film allows her multiple layers and doesn’t just turn her into a one-dimensional lead.
Given how the COVID pandemic obliterated the 2020 cinematic landscape, I don’t know what shape this year’s Oscar will take, but I will say that if the Academy fails to nominate Mulligan for Best Actress, it’ll be a crime. Mulligan takes full control of a complex character and does a remarkable job.
At the risk of too many Batman references, Mulligan’s Cassie feels like an echo of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selena Kyle/Catwoman from 1992’s Batman Returns. For one, Mulligan looks not unlike Pfeiffer, and also her stab at an American accent makes her sound a bit like Pfeiffer as well.
Most of the similarities come from the way both actors took on characters with deep psychological damage and a thirst for revenge. Of course, Pfeiffer played her part in a cartoonier way than Mulligan does hers, though not as much as one might think, given the arch, nearly satirical tone of Woman at times.
Whether or not Mulligan based any part of her work on Pfeiffer’s, she creates an indelible character who becomes the film’s wounded but still beating heart. Mulligan refuses to milk the role’s inherently tragic nature and turns Cassie into a sympathetic part with whom we find it tough to bond because of her casual sense of self-sabotage. It’s a career-defining performance.
As Fennell’s first feature, Woman may turn into a career-launching endeavor for the actor turned filmmaker. An audacious, self-assured and powerful affair, Woman makes me eager to see what Fennell does next.