There’s a reason the rape-revenge genre is so straightforwardly named. When you’re dealing with such distressing violence, blindsiding the audience is unadvised—you’re already putting them through a lot. It takes a discerning filmmaker, then, to change the formula without disrespecting the subject matter. Even Verhoeven, one of cinema’s masters of the profane and perverted, ran into controversy with Elle, an almost fatally provocative rape-revenge film in which the victim processes her assault by trying to relive it instead of avenging it. Promising Young Woman, the latest twist on the genre and directorial debut of Killing Eve writer Emerald Fennell, is a sort of converse of Elle: a woman who puts herself in the warpath of rapists for the express purpose of revenge. It’s just as deliberately provocative.

Cassandra Thomas’ methods are simple: she goes to a club and pretends to be drunk, waits for a guy to take her home, and strikes when they try to take advantage of her. The movie opens on one of those excursions, skipping the trauma that compelled Cassie to become an avenger (Fennell chooses to keep her past secret for a while). Because the story starts in the middle, it’s not immediately clear what kind of rape-revenge film it’ll be—the realistic kind, which depicts rape in all its unthinkable horror and posits revenge as deficient, tragic catharsis (see 2019’s The Nightingale for an excellent recent example); or the sensational kind, which dilutes the agony of it all by painting its characters in broad “hero vs. villain” strokes and playing revenge as immensely satisfying just deserts (see 2018’s Revenge). The entire genre can’t be neatly sorted into two camps, of course, but the distinction between realistic and sensational is natural when finding ways to approach difficult subject matter. As its first scene unfolds, Promising Young Woman leans toward sensational. Menacing lighting and neon colors distance us from the feel of reality. Nearby men discuss assaulting Cassie so brazenly that they villainize themselves. This world is a stage for the defeat of these monsters—let the vengeance begin.

Or so you’d think. Promising Young Woman never shows us what Cassie has in store for her would-be attackers beyond a verbal rebuke. The narrative takes a more twisty path, mostly ignoring Cassie’s nighttime activities and focusing on her past coming back to haunt her. The anticlimax of not seeing monsters vanquished on screen is disappointing, but it finds the film at an interesting middle ground between realistic and sensational—somewhere real enough to deny Cassie the violent release lurking in her thoughts. Expectations are shuffled: is the movie building up to glorious payback, or is it examining rape culture with a seriousness that glorious payback would jar against? Fennell seems to enjoy keeping her audience in the dark, given the amount of plot twists and big reveals peppering the story.

Problem is, keeping the tone and the plot shrouded in misdirection makes Promising Young Woman hard to get a grasp on. There are moments of painful clarity—the way Cassie is framed against certain backdrops as if she were lonely, saintly iconography is always devastating—but they’re just moments. Too much else is muddled to the point of thematic obscurity. As the tone vacillates, the movie can’t decide whether rapists and their enablers are monsters or just monsters, leaping between humanizing them and demonizing them. At some point they all just blur together, and the result is a wash: humans too vile to recognize, demons too contrite to despise. Sometimes the movie is so opaque as to offend, like when its idea of a red herring is “did Cassie punish a rape enabler by having them raped?” Find out if you hate the protagonist in the next scene!

What works best works because of Carey Mulligan. Her Cassie has several speeches that essentially consist of anti-harassment training slogans, but Mulligan brings new, furious life to them by seething them through gritted teeth. Full-bodied commitment to a role is nothing new for Mulligan—even her vocal register shifts from movie to movie—but this is her most wild and unrestrained performance since, I don’t know, ever? She’s a force, and not one you want angry with you. No matter what tone the movie has latched onto, Mulligan’s performance remains consistent, anchoring the shakier sections to a one-woman thriller. When the movie takes a brave third act turn by veering hard into realistic, it’s Mulligan that’ll have you holding your breath. And when the movie undoes its goodwill ten minutes later with a ridiculous left turn into sensational, it’s Mulligan that you’ll want to remember.

★★★   (3/5)