Closing In February 2, 2021
On Promising Young Woman and The Little Things
little way into Promising Young Woman, English filmmaker Emerald Fennell’s feature debut, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), the heroine of the movie, celebrates her
30th birthday. She is decidedly not where she thought she would be at this age a few years ago. Now a medical-school dropout, she lives at home with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) and works at a coffee shop down the way. Aside from her boss (Laverne Cox), she doesn’t have any friends. She doesn’t date. She doesn’t seem to want anything out of life; she certainly doesn’t want to restart her education. Mom and Dad worry. “What am I supposed to tell my friends?” the former bleats over breakfast.
Cassie is unmoored for a reason. Little by little, we learn that her arrested development has been brought on by an incandescence rooted in a trauma from her med-school years — the sexual assault of her classmate
and best friend, Nina, who it is implied killed herself shortly afterward. With no repercussions following suit, Cassie has remained so angry about what happened that her fury has annihilated any sense of self. So now, in what has become a hush-hush, quasi-retributive weekend ritual, Cassie lives almost solely to prowl clubs and bars in town and pretend to be fall-down drunk. When she is predatorily picked up by a guy there — something that happens without fail — she proceeds to give him what amounts to a lesson in consent once they’re back at his place and he’s got his hands all over her. When she soberly asks “what are you doing?,” it’s like she’s transmogrified into a human UVA light, the men in front of her suddenly, albeit maybe only temporarily, seeing themselves for who they are.
Cassie keeps a little book — a kind of hit list — in which she tallies up all the men who’ve tried to take advantage of her. Taking up pages and pages, the marks are drawn with red, blue, and black pens, ostensibly coded to denote how intense each encounter got. The film is exclusively made up of fundamentally harmless ones — run-ins with self-professed “nice guys” prone to wearing fedoras and recommending Cassie read something by David Foster Wallace and who don’t do much else besides sputter when they realize what’s going on. (There’s a particular type of man Promising Young Woman seems to despise the most.) The casting of these men is calculated: “nice-guy” staples like Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Max Greenfield are among them. To her eye, Cassie is scaring the men in her town straight; that she could be making things a little safer for women emboldens her. Maybe because of her intervention they’ll think twice before joking with friends that that very drunk woman over there is asking for it — that she’s putting herself in danger — and that they should teach her a lesson. It doesn’t seem as though there is a logical end point to Cassie’s unconventional avenging.
For the most part smoothly shifting from the darkly comic to the affectingly sad, Promising Young Woman eventually brings Cassie to a crossroads. Does she “move on” from her dysfunctional present, like her loved ones so desperately want her to, when a chance encounter with a charismatic old classmate (Bo Burnham) evolves into a romantic relationship so natural it seems primed to go long-term? (An early montage collecting scenes from the honeymoon period of their romance, charmingly set to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” have the infectious sugar rush of a romantic comedy.) Or does Cassie plunge farther down into the shadowy abyss of vengeance-seeking when she hears more details about Nina’s assault and where her attacker (Chris Lowell) is heading in life? She makes some morally dubious pit stops along the way, getting some of the women complicit in Nina’s assault (Alison Brie, Connie Britton) to admit their abetment through icky emotional manipulation. (One might argue that the film is in some ways more difficult on collusive women than it is on the men who readily try to take advantage of Cassie while she’s in a pretend stupor.)
Promising Young Woman never lets you get too comfortable; it does a good job dramatizing how much secondhand trauma can flatten a person when it remains internalized. You’re unwilling to relax around the too-good-to-be-true Burnham-portrayed paramour (there must be a catch, we think); you find yourself almost viscerally preparing for things to go south. We can’t be sure of how each of the movie’s righteous encounters will play out. Though uneven, the film is at least one of the most invigoratingly unpredictable movies I’ve seen in the last year. Able to as lucidly capture Cassie’s pain as persuasively unnerve when embarking on her mini-revenges, Mulligan is foreseeably terrific in the part.
Carey Mulligan in 2020's Promising Young Woman.
s suggested by the title card's anachronistic layout, Promising Young Woman is partially meant to be a kind of rebuttal to the rape-and-revenge thrillers popular in the 1970s and ‘80s. In those movies,
from Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973) to Ms. 45 (1981), rape itself was often salaciously dramatized by straight male directors. (Thankfully the act isn’t shown in Promising Young Woman; the word “rape” pointedly isn’t uttered, either.) Especially in a movie like Thriller, half the intention in doing that dramatizing was to titillate. Assault then manifested into violent and bloody revenge that, while often cathartic to watch, rarely seriously grappled with trauma and its aftermath, and would even misguidedly sympathize with those victimized by their victim. (One noticeable difference here is that the heroine of Fennell’s movie was secondarily rather than directly affected — it’s more along the lines of The Virgin Spring, from 1960, than 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave.)
Fennell’s movie stays in stride with the subgenre’s penchant for unreality-making stylization, though it doesn’t feel like pure aesthetic flexing. In Promising Young Woman’s case, nearly everything is presented in a color palette that suggests “Candy Crush” by way of Jayne Mansfield’s Pink Palace. The complementary soundtrack ironically offers soaring ballads like Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” and orchestral versions of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” Though darkly comedic, these typically feminine stylistic attributes have underneath them an emotional devastation that feels grounded in reality. To me, they felt like indicators of how Cassie might embellish her world, both materially and psychologically, to make it slightly more livable — things over which she has the most control.
But these characteristics aren’t meant to just refract a portion of Cassie’s personhood. “It’s all about hiding in plain sight,” Fennell said recently during an interview with Vulture of the film’s presentation. “Men who hide in plain sight, a culture that hides in plain sight, and a woman who’s hiding in plain sight. If there’s a weapon that women are very experienced at using, it is clothes and hair and makeup. So it was important for Cassie to seem innocuous and sweet and feminine and tactile and inviting, in the same way that the movie should seem inviting.”
The movie’s final stretch answers the long mulling-over of whether Cassie should seek a more direct sort of revenge or instead try to work through her anguish. Whether it will be universally satisfying for viewers stands on shaky ground, even though it is an effectively sinister display, I think, of patriarchy and rape culture's inextricable destructiveness. Although in the moment it didn’t feel like the whiplash it has been described as, with some digestion I’m not so sure what to make of the conclusion.
Is the justice served actually a sneaky indictment of the law (e.g., something very extreme must happen for a woman’s cries for help to be taken seriously), or a misguided celebration of the justice system as a dependable force for good? Is someone’s death really required to place the film in harsh reality? If it is, then we wonder why this pessimistic, though not misinformed, mindset didn’t apply to other parts of the movie. (During the weekend excursions, I’m not sure the men who take Cassie home would uniformly react solely by sheepishly telling her to take a hike. And I don’t think the brief scene where Cassie busts out the taillights and windshield of a chauvinistic road-rager with a golf club would, in reality, conclude with the driver penitently driving off.) Is the final shot a touch too glib?
None of these questions are meant to suggest that one wants the worst-case scenario version of these events to unfold — more so that the selective narrative realism throws off some of the film’s coherence, rendering the fantasy-reality ratio wobbly and wont to leave many viewers a little unsure what to make of it all. Mulligan’s performance is so astonishing you wish the movie were as consistent as she was. Still, once Promising Young Woman has your attention, you can't turn away.
n John Lee Hancock’s new movie, The Little Things,
Denzel Washington plays a deputy sheriff, Joe Deacon, who is haunted by a years-ago string of unsolved serial murders. Set in 1990, the movie follows him
from his current jurisdiction, Kern County (which we’re meant to read as a demotion), to the L.A. Sheriff Department offices at which he used to work. He's to assist a new detective, Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), looking for the culprit behind a recent string of killings that may be connected to the investigation that has been eating at Deacon all these years. “We haven’t had this much scrutiny since the Night Stalker,” someone in the department notes. Based on the ambiguities that permeate Hancock’s script and the hyper-palpable anguish to Washington’s performance, the movie is clearly striving to take after something like Zodiac (2007). It intends to be a crime drama more interested in telegraphing the tolls of unprocessed trauma and guilt, combined with a desire for a closure that never comes, than offering a lurid thrill.
But Hancock, best known for directing 2009’s The Blind Side, isn’t singular enough of a talent to make the film register as more than a Zodiac manqué. He’s better equipped to make a standard-fare hunt-for-a-serial-killer movie with a resolute ending. In his hands a downcast character study like The Little Things becomes just downcast; the interior terrains of his characters are a collection of “down on his luck” clichés we don’t buy. When someone casually shares how Deacon has gotten to where he is now — years ago he got “a suspension, a divorce, and a triple bypass, all in six months. Complete meltdown” — it’s pretty much all we’re meant to know. Details about why his former colleagues look at him with as much disdain as they do aren't offered.
For what it’s worth, Hancock at least nails down just-right period-evoking details. Nighttime scenes and entrées into poorly lit apartments feel believably suffused with death and doom the way they did in 1995’s Se7en, the preeminent serial-killer thriller of that decade. Hancock can’t stop himself from dotting a city boulevard with a billboard advertising 1990’s Bonfire of the Vanities or a victim’s refrigerator with an ad for a very-early No Doubt show. (The L.A. band did the rounds locally before releasing its debut album in 1992.) But these winking details only confirm the movie’s basic hollowness. Hancock knows precisely what moves he should make, and he can be visually detail-oriented, but you don’t sense very much dramatic conviction underneath the slick mimicry. The movie is like a hodgepodge of serial-killer thriller tropes, competently doing collage-work but never really establishing its own identity. (That it feels derivative, though, is also emblematic of where the subgenre has gone over the decades: the first few drafts of The Little Things were reportedly written in 1993.)
In his first movie since 2018, Washington is expectedly better than the material — he’s a dependable actor magnetic even in his unworthiest vehicles. But Malek and co-star Jared Leto are so bad that there isn’t much Washington can do to ameliorate the damages they inflict on an already-flimsy movie. Malek’s line deliveries come out exclusively in an indifferent monotone; he never makes a facial expression beyond a pout. He doesn’t have any presence — not good when you’re supposed to be a charismatic newbie hotshot — and you don’t care about his arc as a promising upstart slowly turning sour because of a hard case because Malek doesn’t seem to. (His gradual deterioration is meant to mirror Deacon’s.)
As a strange, too-obvious-to-be-true suspect with mousy, months-unwashed hair and beady eyes (the costume department has given him black contacts to wear), Leto overdoes "creepy" enough to might as well have “red herring” inscribed on his forehead. Like with his last prominent role — the Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad — he labors to “disappear” into the character, but akin to his work in that movie we’re quicker to laugh at his on-the-nose attempts to “embody” when we shouldn’t notice them at all: the wobbly gait, the sinister whisper, the deadened goggle eyes. His performance is indicative of what doesn’t work about the movie: we’re so hyper-conscious of what it’s trying to do that we’re affected neither by its big picture nor its little details.
Promising Young Woman: B+
The Little Things: C-