“Promising Young Woman” opens with a scene that served as writer-director Emerald Fennell’s primary inspiration: A young woman named Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is seen blind drunk at a nightclub. A group of young men eye her lasciviously, and then one (Adam Brody) — the responsible one — agrees to call an Uber and get her home. But maybe a stop at his place for a nightcap first? As he mixes a drink, Cassie lays semi-conscious on his bed, and then her eyes suddenly pop open. “Hey. What are you doing?” she asks him with a threatening edge. She is as sober as a hanging judge.
“Promising Young Woman” is a button-pusher, then, an extremely dark comedy that aims to provoke more than convince. It’s a heart-sore female vigilante movie for the #MeToo era, and it wants to start arguments, offend dude-bros everywhere, and get their women friends to have each other’s back. Does it work? Until the movie hits a dead end in the final act, uneasily well — and then more from Mulligan’s wrenching performance than from Fennell’s glibly cynical script.
Still, the director has talent to burn as well as anger. (Fennell’s an actor, too, most recently seen as Camilla Parker Bowles in the current season of “The Crown.”) “Promising Young Woman” picks up as Cassie is at least a year into her undercover campaign of terrorizing unsuspecting men looking for an easy and sleazy score. (Oh, let’s go ahead and call it rape.) She’s about to turn 30, a med school dropout living at home with fretful, uncomprehending parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), and still traumatized by Something Very Bad that happened to a friend named Nina. Not all of Cassie’s targets are brutish louts or preening frat boys; a very funny early scene has her on a date with a fatuous young writer (Christopher Mintz-Plasse — McLovin!), who plies her with wine and David Foster Wallace quotes until she shuts him down hard. “But I’m a nice guy!” he protests. The movie suggests that those are the ones you really have to watch out for.
Except for Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate of Cassie’s who turns up at the coffee shop she works at and whose sense of humor is as deadpan-dark as hers. Burnham started his career as a YouTube comedian before pivoting gracefully to acting and directing (“Eighth Grade,” a standout movie of 2018); he makes Ryan a funny and sane lifeline that we root for the heroine to grab onto.
But there are scores to be settled, including a showdown with a blandly bureaucratic med school dean (Connie Britton); a bubble-headed classmate (Alison Brie), now married and complacent; and a defense lawyer (an uncredited Alfred Molina) with a tortured conscience. The wrath visited on these offenders is biblical, clever, and disturbing, and we are meant to be torn between cheering Cassie on and knowing a sociopath when we see one.
If you’ve caught Mulligan in “An Education” (2009), “Drive” (2011), “Mudbound” (2017), even her Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” (2013), you may know the depths of emotion she is able to bring to a role while presenting a reasonably unruffled surface. The role of Cassie is meat to this actress, and where a different performer might play up the grim jokiness of the material, Mulligan keeps the character rooted in such profound sorrow that it’s invisible to everyone around her, and visible to us only as the tip of an immense iceberg.
The performance runs deeper than the movie, in other words, which complicates our response to Cassie’s endgame and the way its execution doesn’t go as smoothly as planned. I can say no more other than that it involves a bachelor party and a development that is meant to stun the audience but only accentuates the shallowness of the movie’s shock tactics. Fennell is a fearsome sensibility and a talent to watch out for, and the arguments you may have after the lights come up will be well worth having. But it’s the sadness behind Cassie’s practiced smile, the wildfire fury behind that sadness, and the reasons for that fury, that may haunt you when the arguments are over.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell. Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie. At Kendall Square, suburbs. 114 minutes. R (strong violence including sexual assault, language, some sexual material, drug use)