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Movie Review: “Promising Young Woman”

Carey Mulligan is perhaps best known for portraying tragic ingénues, turning in memorable performances in roles like Ryan Gosling’s doe-eyed (and criminally underwritten) love interest in 2011’s “Drive,” and the evanescent Daisy Buchanan in 2013’s “The Great Gatsby.” In Emerald Fennell’s new “Promising Young Woman,” Mulligan finally gets the chance to subvert that persona in an Oscar-caliber reversal, dominating a film that delivers lacerating cultural commentary in exploitation-flick disguise. Given the marketing for this movie, you’d be forgiven for expecting a conventional rape-and-revenge plot-line, in the vein of “The Last House on the Left” or “I Spit On Your Grave,” but what actually shows up onscreen is something much more unexpected.

(Some spoilers in the discussion to come. You’ve been warned.)

Fennell’s film centers on the thirtysomething Cassie (Mulligan) a medical-school dropout who works in a Los Angeles coffee shop by day and frequents the local bars by night, pretending to be hopelessly drunk. Over and over, Cassie lures lecherous men into compromising situations before turning on them like a vengeful Artemis, forcing them to come face-to-face with their predatory behavior. Meanwhile, at the same time she struggles to form a relationship with her former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), a successful pediatrician who’s committed to persuading Cassie that maybe there are some good men out there after all.

It soon becomes clear, however, that this isn’t actually the story of Cassie’s own trauma, but rather that of her late classmate and friend Nina, who was cruelly assaulted while blacked out at a drunken party. For Cassie, perpetually haunted by the fact that she didn’t stop Nina from going to the fateful party in the first place, the only way to expiate her guilt is to make the perpetrators pay. Her key targets aren’t limited to the rapist and his accomplices: also on her list are the school officials and lawyers who swept the offense under the rug.

And it’s here that “Promising Young Woman” runs into a bit of a thematic snag. On the one hand, it’s clear that Fennell’s film is committed to a compelling defense of female agency: women should be free to go where they choose without the threat of being raped. In so arguing, the film amounts to a bruising indictment of anyone who would excuse sexual assault by saying well, she shouldn’t have been drinking in the first place. Responsibility lies with the perpetrator, not the victim. But at the same time, its protagonist is consumed with guilt for not undermining that agency—not stopping Nina from going to the party—and in framing her as a genuine heroine meting out justice against evil people, the movie suggests that this guilt is justified. If indeed individuals are solely responsible for their own choices, though, is Cassie genuinely inculpated by Nina’s exercise of her own agency?

The overall effect of this paradox is that it’s unclear how the viewer should feel about Cassie’s onscreen experience of guilt—and, by extension, her whole crusade. Does Cassie need to atone for her sins in this way? Is she or isn’t she to blame for what happened to Nina? Perhaps Fennell means the audience to simply sit with this unresolved tension—to leave it ambiguous whether “Promising Young Woman” is a tragic meditation on cycles of guilt and recrimination, or a triumphant account of an avenging, atoning angel bringing down swift retribution. But I think the latter is closer to the truth: in many ways, “Promising Young Woman” is the same sort of celebration of postmortem vengeance that made Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” such a controversial hit.

That said, this whole issue is somewhat peripheral to the story’s intended direction. Far more memorable than its internal tension is the mood of pervasive threat that it conjures up, a mood rooted chiefly in its depiction of male silence—the willingness of too many men to make excuses for each other when forced to confront the impact of their actions on the women in their lives. And that, I think, is the film’s principal takeaway.

Technically speaking, “Promising Young Woman” is a standout, marked in particular by its arresting art design and cinematography. A pervasive 1950s aesthetic suffuses the film’s daytime scenes, which disappears entirely once the much grittier nighttime sequences begin—a nice visual evocation of the darkness that often lurks beneath the surface of everyday life. And to her great credit, Fennell avoids choppy editing in favor of lingering takes that her leads’ emotions to play out, lending real depth to her characters. Mulligan, as previously noted, is singularly great in the lead role—as is the supporting cast, notably Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Alfred Molina.

For those who might be put off by the subject matter, this is not an especially gruesome film—the real horror lies in the viewer’s imagination of what’s happening off-camera—but it is by no means an easy watch. It is, however, well worth your time. As an unsettling parable of deep wounds and delayed justice, “Promising Young Woman” is a tremendous success. (And I look forward to seeing whatever Fennell directs next.)

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2021 in Thrillers

 

Movie Review: “Unhinged”

One of the very last movies I saw before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters was “The Hunt.” Originally scheduled for release last summer, “The Hunt” was yanked from the calendar after allegations that the film (an update of the classic story “The Most Dangerous Game”) glorified progressives massacring red-state Americans in a secluded compound. This brouhaha, it turns out, was a rather awkward case of missing the point. The film ended up depicting spiteful elite progressives kidnapping red-state Americans after being implicated in a fringe conspiracy theory—and ironically, in so doing, vindicating that theory. Imagine a kind of meta-QAnon story as a horror film, and you’ll get the picture.

Accordingly, probably the most honest reading of “The Hunt” is that it’s a conservative-leaning story: one that manages to be self-critical about some propensities on the right to engage in conspiracist thinking, but one that ultimately turns around and that argues that a fundamental cynicism about elites is entirely justified. “Unhinged,” for its part, goes in almost exactly the opposite direction.

In the opening minutes of the film, an overweight, hydrocodone-popping Russell Crowe (credited only as “The Man”) breaks into a home in a glitzy subdivision and kills the occupants with a fire axe. Following a brief altercation at a traffic light the next day, The Man becomes a seething avatar of pure road rage, chasing after single mom Rachel (Caren Pistorius) and her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), as well as everyone else in their lives.

That’s pretty much it—once the groundwork’s laid, director Derrick Borte leans hard into the propulsive momentum of his film, upping the stakes further and further with each passing minute. Though marketed as a “thriller,” “Unhinged” is better described as a full-on horror flick: there’s plenty of brutal and bloody hand-to-hand fighting to go along with the vehicular carnage. For what it’s worth, if slasher films are your thing, this is a pretty good one—but those seeking something more date night-friendly may want to sit this one out.

What’s notable about “Unhinged” isn’t its script, acting, or camera work (which are all serviceable enough, if unexceptional). Rather, what stands out most about the movie is the fact that the fears that it taps into are the precise flip side, politically speaking, of those powering “The Hunt.”

Through isolated snippets of exposition, we learn that The Man dropped out of school, was cheated on by his wife, was subsequently drained by divorce lawyers, and was fired from his manual-labor job just before his pension vested. Accordingly, calling the film a depiction of “toxic masculinity,” as some critics have, is too facile: rather, the villain in “Unhinged” is an incarnation of every terrifying stereotype of the blue-collar right held by ardent readers of the “New York Times.” Obesity? Check. Low educational level? Check. Opioids? Check. Giant pickup truck? Check. (In the encounter that initially triggers his rage against Rachel, The Man denounces the demise of a previous culture where people had respect for each other and apologized for things.)

If “The Hunt” tries to depict something that the median conservative dreads above all else (a malicious conspiracy of decadent elites, constantly trying to prey on the helpless), “Unhinged” tries to do the same for liberals—focusing on an unstable Trumpy Bro on the blood-soaked warpath. Explicit slogans aren’t needed (or present): the aesthetics and mood are enough.

Only time will tell whether this split between “right” and “left” horror will shape the future of the genre. Horror films have always been transgressive, but weren’t always politicized in quite this way—earlier iterations appealed to a relatively unitary understanding of the “popular culture.” For example, in 1973, the demonic horror of “The Exorcist” drew on relatively ubiquitous religious values and a cultural sense of the sacred that was still strong enough to provoke sharp reactions from its audience. In the 1980s, the first wave of teen slashers (including such classics as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th”) capitalized on deep concerns over risky behavior among teens and the impact of the sexual revolution.

But then again, perhaps this reading is wrong. Maybe there isn’t really a “split” in the genre at all: right now, the only monster that matters is the political Other, however one chooses to interpret that.

That can’t be good for the culture at large. But it does make for interesting movies.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2020 in Thrillers

 
 
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