Films anchored by female villains are still not too commonplace, even less so are ones garnering major awards. But with Promising Young Woman and I Care a Lot, we have two concurrent examples. Darkly comic yet deadly serious, each features a British lead actress combined with a British writer/director, but is set in the United States.
One night a week, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) goes out to a bar. Her drunken antics inevitably attract the attention of a “well-meaning” man who whisks her back to his place. Once the opportunity strikes, he’ll try having his way with her. One small problem: Cassie is not actually inebriated, and very capable of retaliation.
I said years ago that rape-revege films were likely never going to surpass their progenitor The Virgin Spring, and I still stand fully by that assertion. That said, Promising Young Woman is a solid enough entry. Even though it isn’t as violent as some might be expecting/hoping, it has some gripping twists and turns. Mulligan has never been more commanding or unpredictable, while first-time director Emerald Fennell’s shot compositions are striking and smart.
A huge point against the film, though, is its terrible music selection. The original score is brilliant, but the needle drops are not. While the opening credits cover of “It’s Raining Men” isn’t all that bad, a song originally performed by BBWOC and seen as an anthem for the gay community doesn’t really have any connection to this material. Scenes that should resonate with dramatic heft are ruined by some truly awful song choices. And the instrumental version of “Toxic” is just as ear-bleedingly atrocious as the first.
I Care a Lot, on the other hand, is very much in the vein of an episode of The Hitchhiker. Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) is a court-appointed guardian who has her elderly clients committed under false pretenses. From there, she bilks them dry with Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), her partner in both senses of the word. But their latest mark (Dianne Wiest), who seemed perfect on paper, has a secret that they didn’t anticipate.
This tale would probably have been better off as something that runs just over 20 minutes as opposed to just under 120 minutes. Strangely, for going on so long, it feels very underwritten. Fran is a useless character who could’ve been cut entirely and some story developments lack internal credulity. There’s a theory that this is one of those movies where some things we see aren’t actually happening and just in the protagonist’s mind. If true, this would cover for a lot of the plot holes, but there’s really nothing in the film to corroborate that view.
But the acting is very strong, with Alicia Witt and Peter DInklage also in the impressive cast. Wiest is rather underutilized, but gets in some moments where she can. It’s Pike, however, who is the standout. The work she does here is masterful, and if this movie can be said to be carried by anything, it’s her.
The two films differ in the degree to which the audience is told of the character’s past. Bit by bit, viewers learn what’s driving Cassie and what led to her arrested development. With Marla, no motive is explored. The scheme is demonstrated to be effective, sure, but there’s never any explanation as to how or why she got into it (grandmommy issues?).
Ultimately, it is that greater attention to detail that gives Cassie’s film the edge. Both their strong and weak points, but having the better central character makes for the better experience overall.
Winner: Promising Young Woman