Film Critic

Chuck Koplinski is The News-Gazette's film critic. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter (@ckoplinski).

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Sometimes, the sheer force of a single performance can elevate a film, turning a run-of-the-mill project into something truly special.

Such is the case with Carey Mulligan and “Promising Young Woman,” a social diatribe disguised as a pitch-black comedy, a film that takes no prisoners as it examines sexual abuse and its far-reaching consequences.

Its basis has been used in many exploitation flicks, and it resembles a female-driven “Death Wish” with a wicked sense of humor.

But it winds up being much more than that, thanks to sharp-edged writing from director Emerald Fennell and a fierce performance from Mulligan, who grounds her character’s sense of guilt and vengeance in sincerity and remorse.

Cassandra Thomas (Mulligan) once had great promise. However, she dropped out of medical school soon after her best friend, also a pre-med student, was brutally raped by multiple men at their college, ultimately committing suicide.

Living at home and languishing in a dead-end job at a coffee shop, Cassie is seemingly adrift … that is, until nightfall, when she goes to bars, pretends to be drunk and allows herself to be picked up by a “Good Samaritan,” who invariably tries to take advantage of her.

Our heroine soon reveals herself to be sober, turns the tables on her assailant and … well, we see her putting hash marks in a notebook replete with them each morning, a signifier of her campaign of revenge against men like those who had assaulted her friend.

It seems like a dead-end path, until she reunites with Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate who belatedly acts on his attraction to her.

They go out a few times, Cassandra finds she can stomach him and even toys with the notion that while 99.9 percent of men are scumbags, Ryan may be a keeper. Could love and a healthy relationship be in her future? Of course, that would be too easy and run counter to Fennell’s intentions.

There are no happy endings to be had here; this is a world of victims and abusers and little in between.

Like any responsibly well-

done revenge tale, the story proves engaging, as it speaks to us on a primal level, appealing to our sense of right and wrong, the vengeful hero a worthy cathartic figure whose only intention is to balance the scales.

Run-of-the-mill entries are satisfied with providing simple vicarious thrills. However, “Promising” is one of the few that digs deeper, revealing exactly what is driving Cassie, not simply looking at the violence she commits but the pain she’s incapable of relieving.

Mulligan, one of the great actresses of her generation, wears a wide variety of masks here and is convincing in each.

Whether a “drunken” temptress, a sharp-edged coquette, an avenging angel or a wounded child, her sincerity validates every facet of Cassie’s personality, in the end creating a flawed woman we can easily relate to.

While we may be put off by some of her actions, in the end, we long to comfort her.

Mulligan delivers a complex portrait of madness that can’t help but affect the viewer.

Fennnell’s one misstep is in the way she portrays men. Every single one is reprehensible in one way or another. This broad-stroke approach runs counter to the complex examination of her heroine, a narrative flaw that’s hard to excuse.

Still, Mulligan is a sight to behold, and while “Promising” might not be one of the year’s best films, her performance certainly is.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter @ckoplinski. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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