Promising Young Woman
Warning: This review covers explicit content and essential plot spoilers.
It is recommended that you watch the film before reading.
Acts of sexual violence are among the most prevalent crimes committed every year in North America. They are also among the most underreported. A weighty anxiety hangs over the subject that makes it difficult for many to face or discuss, masked as it is by a culture of denial. Open dialogues on sexual assault remain very near the status of taboo, even, and perhaps especially, for those who have never been exposed to it. So when a movie about rape revenge arrives amidst a pandemic lull, it tends to attract notice.
Produced by Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman tells the story of Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a thirty-year-old barista by day / vigilante by night who poses regularly as an intoxicated, vulnerable woman in her efforts to punish preying men. Fennell, who you may know as Camilla Parker Bowles from The Crown, wrote and directed the film as her feature debut, striking the tone of a modern day Hitchcock picture blended to a punk rock, coming-of-age romcom with extraordinary appeal.
The genre pairing succeeds in large part due to the compilation of female-led pop songs that guide the soundtrack, including “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls, Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” and Juice Newton’s cover for “Angel of the Morning.” The preeminence of the soundtrack echoes the likes of Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You, specially compiled by Fennell over a period of two years and complemented with a score by Anthony Willis. Providence would have it that Willis and Fennell previously attended school together, making for a serendipitous reunion. Willis’ prior work consists primarily of supporting collaborations with John Powell, Henry Jackman, and Harry Gregson-Williams.
Fennell wanted the score to exact a Bernard Herrmann-esque thriller paradigm as a counterbalance to the pop songs. An obvious direction for Fennell and Willis would have been to pursue an all-electronic approach in keeping with the chosen pop soundtrack. Instead, they went with authentic instruments, a risk that paid off marvellously. The score was performed by the Synchron Stage Orchestra, led with strings and supported by piano, organ, vocals, and synthesizer. The Viennese String Quartet subsidized the score independently with a performance of Britney Spears’ "Toxic," heard toward the climax of the film and bridging the divide between song and score.
Willis’ score is grounded in Cassie’s emotional reality, shaped as it has been by the death of her unseen friend, Nina. While the words rape and suicide are never explicitly stated, it is strongly implied that Nina committed suicide after having been raped by one of her and Cassie’s fellow med-school cohorts, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell). Nina’s absence in Cassie’s life is so palpable it fills every frame, with the music lingering in its wake. A sonic manifestation of Cassie’s residual trauma after having lost her best friend. Unvalidated. Unresolved. Broken.
“Damsels & ‘Good Guys’” inaugurates the score with slippery violins, snapping fingers, and subtle dub beats towing her nightlife ventures, moving into aleatoric expressions soon after. The “Thriller Suite,” a collection of isolated moments of tension experienced in-film, carries on these sour timbres while highlighting two of the score's principal motifs. The first, a string portamento, sliding up and down a tritone in quick succession, and the second, a recurring growling effect from the cellos created by sautillé bowing.
The despondent and plaintive theme written for the film belongs to Cassie, organized as a reciprocating combination of four notes. The one consistent interval is a rising whole tone, typically followed by an ascending leap of a sixth and a descending fifth. However, as arranged in “Madison,” these combinations can be reversed. The most virtuous and arguably the purist rendition of the theme is assumed in “Cassie,” with the melody taken up in the cello as she and Nina’s mother reminisce about better times.
“[A]s I started writing the theme, what I realized was it wasn't really her theme; it was a theme for a lost friendship."
Considering the relative simplicity of its four-note contour, the number of variations Willis developed for Cassie’s theme is commendable. When we meet Madison (Alison Brie), tremolo strings are joined by a shrewd, probing account of the melody, like a predatory dance. It presents itself in a hostile manner, targeting the med-school Dean (Connie Britton) in much the same way. Only Jordan Green (Alfred Molina), the lawyer who harassed Nina into silence, is treated otherwise. As the one character who demonstrates remorse for the part he played, he is offered a mournful, forgiving variation of the theme.
Sorrowful musings on ivory keys serve to disrupt the more pernicious aspects of the score, savoring brief moments of contentment and bliss (“Ryan” and “Blue Halo”). Sadly, even these hopeful distractions are but a single misstep away from total disaster, made infinitely more devastating when we hear how close the music is to giving into Cassie’s wellspring of grief. “Hymn for Nina” crystallizes this grief with cool, sighing vocals as Cassie is shown a video record of Nina’s assault. Kelly Adams and Emily Rosen breathe out torment with spectral grace; a haunted lullaby solidifying Cassie and Nina’s inexorably entwined fates.
Cassie’s avenging masterstroke is led by the much discussed string quartet cover of “Toxic,” for which the players were asked to conduct themselves as if drunk. Initially ambiguous, a steady chipping away of scratchy strings establishes the familiar escapade of addiction and temptation, with the tempo slowing to a delirious crawl. Toxic is a not unfair characterization of the score. That is, the toxic expression of Cassie’s unresolved trauma, which the final chapter of the film reveals to preface a raw, doomed finality.
“Squeezed Out” resumes, with startling sobriety, the tension building suspense exhibited intermittently throughout the score. All too soon, the music takes a dark turn as Cassie, suddenly overpowered by Al in the middle of her revenge plot, struggles to regain control. Hacking, jittering attacks and cacophonous harmonics break through her panic, just as suddenly cutting out as a pillow mutes her screams. Locked into suffocating death throes, the sautillé cello groans return, mimicking the last signs of life leaving her body, right to the bitter end; the genius of the device matched only by the horror of its application. “Missing Person’s Report” and the avenging “Angel of the Morning” trail the nightmare, offering what little closure there is to be found for Cassie and Nina.
Some well-spotted music trivia not included in the soundtrack release was placed front and centre in the film, too. “Pretty Fly,” written by Walter Schumann for the 1955 thriller The Night of the Hunter, enters just after Cassie watches the video of Nina’s assault. The Night of the Hunter is itself a film about a predator, with Pearl Harper (dubbed by Betty Benson) singing “Pretty Fly” just after she and her brother escape the hunter’s clutches and the long night begins. The antiquated recording settles into Promising Young Woman with a mesmerizing, disturbing power, performed by innocence to announce the loss of innocence.
An earlier scene following Cassie’s stint with the dean introduced an excerpted piece of Richard Wagner’s “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. It is a powerful, soul-searching proclamation made as Cassie considers the path she has committed to, at once liberating and terrifying in its purpose. And another repertoirical nod is given after Cassie’s death, where “Something Wonderful” from The King and I (1951), by Rodgers and Hammerstein, is aired. Terry Saunders’ voice floats across the Ohioan hills in mockery of The Sound of Music (“This is a man who thinks with his heart, his heart is not always wise…”), ironically sympathizing with Al’s position.
Promising Young Woman is a film of its time made for its time, with a score comparable in its naked expression to the emotional calamity of Michael Brook’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Whether you are appraising the soundtrack or the score, all around brilliant musical choices were made, bespeaking astounding imagination and exceptional execution. Many who have experienced such trauma will be moved to tears, and many more who haven’t will find themselves engaged, unexpectedly, in ubiquitous lament.