A howl of rage at sexual predators

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Running time: 114 min. Rated R (violence, language, drug use).

If ever there was a movie worth venturing back to the theater for, it’s this blistering horror-comedy.

By turns acidly funny and genuinely upsetting, “Promising Young Woman” stars Carey Mulligan as an avenging heroine for our time, and its gut-punch twists promise big audience reactions. 

Mulligan is Cassandra, a caustic 30-year-old whose life has been mysteriously derailed. A med school star who suddenly dropped out, she’s moved back in with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), works a dead-end coffee shop job, and has seemingly no relationships or friends other than her kindhearted boss (Laverne Cox). 

Cassie’s sole mission is going to bars, playing sloppy-drunk, then dropping the act just as she’s about to be preyed on by a self-proclaimed “nice guy” who’s taken her home with him. Not since “Thelma and Louise” have would-be predators had the tables turned on them so memorably, and Mulligan (“Wildlife”) gives a powerhouse performance, coating Cassie’s white-hot anger in silky sarcasm.

The men’s cloying refrain — “But I’m a nice guy!” — comes up over and over, and writer/director Emerald Fennell (showrunner for the second season of “Killing Eve,” whose colorful punk-tinged visuals are echoed here) has assembled a who’s who of genial cinematic dudes: Adam Brody, Chris Lowell, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson and Max Greenfield. Lanky comedian and director Bo Burnham (“Eighth Grade”) plays Ryan, a different sort: He’s an admirer of Cassie’s from med school whose bone-dry wit breaks through her antisocial resolve. 

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in "Promising Young Woman."
Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in “Promising Young Woman.”
©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett

Gradually, Fennell doles out clues. Alison Brie and Connie Britton show up as voices of willful indifference, with Britton’s academic dean a stand-in for countless dismissors of rape accusations: “What would you have me do, ruin a young man’s life?” The film’s title seems to wink at a quote from the judge who, in 2016, declared Stanford rapist Brock Turner a promising young man before delivering a wrist slap of a sentence. 

“Promising Young Woman” is one hell of a feature writing/directing debut, distilling the experiences of disbelieved, discarded women throughout history into one character’s obsession.

The Cassandra of Greek mythology was a rape victim and a cursed visionary: She could predict the future, but would never be believed. Her modern-day incarnation embodies a howl of rage against every sexual predator camouflaged in business casual. I’m betting an awful lot of women will find Fennell’s vision hard to shake. I know I did. 

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