The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The film ‘Promising Young Woman’ floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

(3.5 stars)

In “Promising Young Woman,” Carey Mulligan plays Cassandra, a former medical student living in Ohio with her parents, who are so keen for her to move out that they give her a suitcase for her 30th birthday.

The suitcase is pink, a color that dominates the palette of “Promising Young Woman” and camouflages the subversive violence at its core. Cassie, it turns out, is no Gen-Z slacker nursing a generational sense of entitlement and directionless ennui. She may be bored out of her gourd working a dead-end job at a coffee shop, but she’s a woman on a mission, the precise contours of which come into increasingly jarring focus along with the details of Cassie’s strange, yet utterly banal story.

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman” often acts as a sort of bestie to “Killing Eve,” the darkly funny series Fennell worked on. Like roommates who are ­thisclose, the movie and TV show swap clothes and colorways and a feminist sensibility that cuts deep enough to draw blood. Mulligan’s Carrie is a cutie-pie: Her blond hair is perpetually gathered into an attractively messy updo, her tastes running to soft, flower-festooned sweaters. Her unassailable femininity — or, more accurately, her shrewd deployment of femininity as it is conventionally understood (and chronically misunderstood) — is her superpower. She might as well have L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E Beadazzled on her candy-colored nails, just like Robert Mitchum has tattooed on his knuckles in the clip of “Night of the Hunter” that serves as one of Fennell’s frequent knowing winks.

Aloft on pastel clouds of pinks, blues and lavenders, Cassie floats through a world where names like Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh and Brock Turner aren’t explicitly invoked, but in which a familiar mixture of impunity and self-righteous claims of offended innocence clog the air like so much Axe body spray. Keeping her own counsel, Cassie goes about her agenda with the single-mindedness of the A-student she once was, her catlike face the picture of serene self-possession while a toxic caramel macchiato of grief, rage and vengeance roils underneath.

As bravura a performance as Mulligan delivers in “Promising Young Woman,” credit rightfully goes to Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Bo Burnham as the men Cassie encounters on her travels, which eventually take her into a realm that’s perversely pleasing, but also deflating. (Burnham is particularly effective as a former classmate of Cassie’s who just might be the redemptive figure she, or at least the audience, is looking for.) Say this much for Fennell: She is incapable of pulling punches. Even when they’re swaddled in the puffiest, fuzziest of gloves, her blows land with gut-wrenching force.

R. At area theaters Dec. 25. Contains strong violence, including sexual assault, coarse language throughout, some sexual material and drug use. 113 minutes.