“Promising Young Woman” offers a bold, but poor take on the rape revenge story

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Courtesy of Focus Features

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie in director Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman.”

The new thriller and dark comedy movie “Promising Young Woman” tells a candy-coated rape-revenge story which bares resemblance to “Joker,” but for women. 

Carey Mulligan, known for more tamed roles, wickedly plays Cassie, a medical school dropout with a tragic past who trolls predatory men in bars by pretending she is drunk.

Cassie is aware of her power and femininity with her Easter-colored nails, braided hair and pastel outfits as she seeks to avenge the rape of her best friend, Nina, while still living with her quirky parents and working at a colorfully-decorated coffee shop. 

The two-hour film tackles rape culture with a bright set design, bubblegum pop music and a well-known cast. On the surface the film is flirty, colorful and bold, but beneath it is a poor execution of a delicate topic that should have been handled more carefully.

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham share a scene in “Promising Young Woman.” (Merie Weismiller Wallace)

In the opening scene, Cassie appears drunk and vulnerable at a bar and goes home with a guy. While he pulls her panties down she snaps out of it and belittles him. Luring rapists under her spell seems to be Cassie’s only hobby, as she keeps a tally of all the men she has seeked vengeance on. But we don’t learn much about her besides her revenge story, making it difficult to watch such a sensitive topic with care. 

Throughout the movie, the direction was very unsure from shocking revenge scenes to some serious conversation. The film was right to touch upon how much of a nightmare rape is for women while striking down the notion that boys will just be boys, but sexual assault still demanded a more elevated and empathetic conversation in this movie.

In one scene, Cassie tricked a former friend into believing she was raped. In another Cassie met with her old college dean to get revenge on her for dismissing Nina’s rape. For a short while, the audience was led to believe that the dean’s daughter was at risk of being sexually assaulted herself in a scene that was patched up to be funny. 

Aside from the fun aesthetics, female empowerment shouldn’t simply be rooted in the thought that men are trash while “girl bossing” sexual assault. Getting vengeance on the self-described nice guy and other women is poor taste and insensitive.

Maybe expectations were too high for this movie, but it was a letdown and, in what should have led to a twisty and razor-sharp ending, was one that was unfulfilling as the violence then turned onto Cassie. 

Additionally, the audience never quite got to learn about Cassie’s friend Nina despite her importance to the narrative as Cassie’s reason for revenge. 

Despite the disappointing plot, Mulligan gave a solid performance as she flawlessly switched between being terrifying and charming. Mulligan doesn’t often play characters like Cassie, so it was refreshing seeing her playing such a wild and enticing character. 

This thriller is also the directorial debut of actor and writer Emerald Fennell. Fennel is also known for being the showrunner of the second season of “Killing Eve,” a show also about dangerous and flirty women. Fennell has an eye for badass women and this is clear in the vibrant “Promising Young Woman,” although she could have handled the rape-revenge story with more empathy. 

In the #MeToo era, rape-revenge stories should feel more relevent than ever, but “Promising Young Woman” never really focused on the real reality of rape. Sure, this movie was a nice comedic relief at times such as with a stellar Paris Hilton lip-syncing scene, but it demanded a more grounded plot. 

For a different approach to the aftermath of rape, watch “Unbelievable,” “I May Destroy You” or “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” for a more thoughtful story that simply doesn’t make rape revenge a #girlboss moment. 

Follow Sarah on Twitter @thesarahdipity.