Payback Never Looked So Promising
Wow. 'Wow' was the only word I could muster after watching this unbelievable film. I was lucky enough to be sent a screener link for this one (thank you Nashville Film Festival and Focus Features for that) and it made me long to be in a theater again. I was truly grateful to be able to see it, of course, but what I would have given to see it on the big screen. Lamenting the loss of theaters in Illinois right now. Anyway, back to this remarkable film! Wow! Carey Mulligan gives a stunning, dynamic, and layered performance which carries the whole film, really. The screenplay is unrelenting, incredibly well structured, and purely just astonishing. I also loved all of the directorial choices in this - shoutout to Emerald Fennell, an alumnus of Killing Eve, one of my favorite shows right now. Let's take a deeper look into the film that you absolutely have to go out of your way to see this year.
Carey F*cking Mulligan!
To talk about this film is to talk about Carey Mulligan. What a wonderful performance from a wonderful actress. She really carries (Careys?) the film on her very promising shoulders throughout. Her dynamic, layered, emotional, and assuredly charismatic performance leads us through the film, and shows us she's more than capable of being a leading lady...in ANYTHING. I firmly believe that she will burst into the Oscar race for Best Actress very soon, if she hasn't already. I am not entirely certain she can win, as this is a very stacked year for lead actress performances, but she is certainly more than worthy of being in the conversation. There is much Carey had to do in order for this to be effective: she had to hold much back from us for the majority of the film, she had to be charming yet damaged, she had to be charismatic yet keep us at arm's length, and she had to get emotional and tough when the moments called for it - and she did all of these things with flying colors. I have loved her since Shame (2011) and Wildlife (2018) and she continues to dazzle me in everything she finds herself in. It is abundantly clear to me that she picks fascinating projects, scripts, and filmmakers with the work she does, and it's my hope that she will continue to do so (she undoubtedly will). Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Bo Burnham has a great supporting performance in this film. He is naturally outshined by the wonderful and immensely talented Carey Mulligan, of course. But, still had to be mentioned nonetheless.
I was very impressed with the screenplay of this film. Typically, in my experience, revenge thrillers are often bland and forgettable - however, this is anything but. This literally flips the script (ha, see what I did there) on the revenge thriller in nearly every significant way. This is a genre bender which subverts our expectations (in a good way) by turning everything we know about the revenge thriller on its head. What I love about this is that it kept me interested and guessing at every turn - rather than constantly being one step ahead of the screenwriter. The screenplay is also brilliantly structured. Again, what we know about the genre always has us rolling our eyes whenever it happens when we expect it to happen. Rather, with this film, it does not hit the beats when we expect it to - nor does it hit any of the beats when or how we expect. Emerald Fennell clearly understands the cinematic language very well, and uses that to her advantage. Just when we think we see where she's going, she takes it in the complete opposite direction. And that greatly benefits the film as a whole when you don't know what to expect and you can't possibly predict exactly where it's heading.
Emerald Fennell's confident direction is another strength of this film that sets it apart from the rest within the genre. There were very interesting directorial and artistic choices she makes that add just enough flair to make it her own and have it stand out from the pack. Early on in the film, she chooses to have Carey Mulligan do a fourth wall break that is well placed and really sets the tone for the rest of the film. The way she decides to frame and block shots is also fascinating too. What she chooses to include, colors, set design, Carey's costumes and makeup choices, and the way the camera moves or when close-ups are utilized are all important and calculated choices which accent and benefit the film as a whole. The small details she chooses to not only include, but focus on, are also brilliant and well placed. There are incredible directorial choices once we reach the pivotal moments leading up to the climactic scene and are well worthy of note. They are also something to look out for if you haven't seen the film, and something to be mindful of on a rewatch if you have. If you have seen it, it features bachelors, alcohol...you know what I'm getting at. The cinematography and editing in this sequence are *chef's kiss*. She will most certainly be a director to watch out for in the future and I look forward to her subsequent projects.
Did I mention this already? Well, it bears repeating. The structure of the film is intriguing. I was unsure about the film and where it was headed with the "prologue" if that's what you want to call it. Well, I would call it that. It seemed that there were some minor hiccups in this prologue. Some on-the-nose dialogue (which is common in most films with prescient topics), some melodrama coupled with bad acting, and some typical set-ups for the genre. Once we get past that, we dive into the good stuff. The film starts out in familiar territory but then it's abundantly clear that we are not about to fit the mold of a run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter forgettable revenge thriller. The film essentially is in five chapters after the initial prologue. Each chapter includes not only backstory, but it's also moving the plot forward with HER plot to get back at all of these people who have wronged her (and/or those she cares about). So, these chapters all include a piece to the puzzle, usually a person. Once she is done with the particular puzzle piece, she moves on to the next while interweaving that with her current romantic subplot. This is then interwoven towards the end, and it becomes clear why. There are also brilliant setups in the beginning and middle that are all paid off in the most satisfying if not infuriating of ways in the dramatic, intense, and highly pulsating finale. The brilliant structure of the film is, of course, thanks to the audacious, unique, highly entertaining and effective screenplay.
Overall, Promising Young Woman is not just an entertaining revenge thriller, it is also essential viewing with prescient themes. The film is, of course, not without its flaws, but ultimately they are overshadowed in the grand scheme of things from all of the aforementioned expertly crafted filmmaking aspects. Emerald Fennell as a writer/director shows much promise (ha) and is undoubtedly a filmmaker to watch out for in the future. Carey Mulligan gives an outstanding Oscar-worthy performance and we should all look for her name to send shockwaves throughout the awards circuit at large. The screenplay, direction, cinematography, and editing choices lead this film to stand out from the rest of the forgettable, painfully average revenge thrillers out there. Not just because of the filmmaking on display, but also because this film has a lot more on its mind than just simply revenge for the sake of getting back at those who have wronged you (or those you love). Additionally, this screenplay turns the conventions of the genre on their heads and makes it all make sense in the grander scheme of the plot. It manages to take what most movies with timely themes would make on the nose and seamlessly makes it organic and grounded in reality. It takes real situations and puts them into context in an understandable, (hopefully not) relatable, and legible way. I have to say, I have never been so gobsmacked from a film's final act than I was with this film's jaw-dropping, heartbreaking, and breathtaking concluding sequence. The credits rolled and I was absolutely speechless. Perhaps you will have the same experience if you give this one a shot. I promise you will not regret (possibly) going outside your comfort zone with this one.
You are in for a cinematic treat if you do.
Painfully Average/run of the mill
How did this get made
Promising Young Woman is currently enjoying a limited theatrical release and is available wherever theaters are open and is also on PVOD for $20.
(see this on the biggest screen possible)