Content warning: this film includes themes of rape.

This awards season’s most divisive film is, at its heart, an object lesson in expectations and subversion. The set-up – a young woman targets predatory men to avenge the rape of her best friend – initially seems to tread familiar ground: a fantasy of catharsis against the dehumanisation women experience every day. Yet Promising Young Woman is a far more slippery creature than it first appears, an exercise in defiant, cunning storytelling and generic resistance.

The cast here is rich with millennial television’s favourite softbois, perpetrating violence at every turn. The unsettling score cultivates a creeping sense of dread against a backdrop of sun-soaked suburbia. Blood appears to trickle from our vengeful heroine’s hands, revealed moments later to be drips of crimson ketchup. Slowly, the bubble-gum pink rape-revenge thriller promised by the trailer reveals itself as a pricklier, more haunted thing, dense with grief and disappointment and powerlessness.

If this sounds at all equivocal, it isn’t. Through every craft available to her, writer-director Emerald Fennell fosters a dizzying sense of destabilisation that echoes society’s uneven, bloodied distributions of power, and the insufficiencies of our narrative frameworks in depicting them. Underpinned by a surgically raw performance from Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman builds its case with biting satire: that vigilante justice does little but expose how utterly society has abandoned women, that there is unbelievable devastation in having to course-correct this systemic violence alone.

It is by no means flawless: the broadly criticised ending certainly capitulates to a rigid idea of justice that feels at odds with the ambiguity that comes before. Yet as an unflinching interrogation of whose stories and rights to complexity we privilege, Promising Young Woman is unforgettable – a ferocious reminder that every woman reduced to a soundbite, a body, a statistic, was once her own story’s protagonist.



CAST: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Milly Shannon, Adam Brody

DIRECTOR: Emerald Fennell

WRITER: Emerald Fennell

SYNOPSIS: Following the violent rape of her best friend in their college days, ex-med school student Cassie undertakes a crusade against predatory men.