Film Reviews

Promising Young Woman & Sound of Metal

Published April 23, 2021
Cassie goes to work

In preparation for this year’s Academy Awards I’ve already reviewed six of the eight films nominated for Best Picture. Today I’ll take a look at the two that remain. I don’t know why it’s taken so long to catch up with Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, as it’s one of the most talked-about films of the past 12 months. Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal has been easier to miss. Aside from a brief run at a few of the artier cinemas, it’s to be found only on Amazon Prime.

Carey Mulligan’s Cassie, the protagonist of Promising Young Woman, has got to be a Scorpio. Astrologers will tell you that no other sign of the zodiac is so consumed by the need for revenge. In Cassie’s case it’s revenge at one remove, on behalf of her best friend, Nina, who took her own life after being publicly raped at a drunken party. It’s a curious tactic that Fennell’s script sidesteps words such as “rape” and “suicide”, emphasising the pathological nature of the campaign Cassie is conducting against predatory males.

Her bête noire is the guy who believes that any woman too drunk or wasted to know what she’s doing is fair game. The story begins in a bar, where fat-gutted office drones gyrate to music and get smashed after work. Cassie is slouched in a drunken heap over the against the wall. It isn’t long before one gallant individual offers to help her get home, but instead decides to detour via his own apartment. He’ll soon learn that appearances can be deceptive.

Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut puts a new twist on the rape revenge movie – a dubious sub-genre that usually belongs in the ‘exploitation’ category. Unless we’re talking about a film such as Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the standard recipe is: a woman is brutally raped but then turns the tables on her attackers by murdering them in various gory ways. This allows for endless permutations of that popular ‘sex & violence’ cocktail, but with a crudely feminist escape clause. “Well yes, the rape scenes are very long and graphic, but hey, she kills all those guys in the end!”

This is not the case with Cassie’s crusade in which she allows some sleaze-bag to drag her back to his place only to reveal she is not at all drunk just when he’s making his big move. Invariably it freaks them out, but one can’t help thinking she’s lucky not to have encountered a more brutal antagonist. It’s a dangerous game, and a little deranged. There’s been some controversy about whether Carey Mulligan was the right actress for this role, but I’ve rarely seen her in more convincing form. She’s far better as Cassie the avenging angel than she was as Bathsheba Everdene in Far From the Madding Crowd (2015).

It has been close to ten years since Cassie dropped out of medical school, following Nina’s asault. She feels guilty she wasn’t there for her friend, but are we supposed to believe she has spent all that time brooding on the incident, going out at nights to deceive and humiliate creepy guys while putting her own life into the deep freeze? Apparently, yes. She and Nina are portrayed as two parts of the same charm bracelet. Without Nina, Cassie cannot be whole.

Although she was a brilliant student, at the age of 30 Cassie still lives with her parents, and works behind the counter in a small coffee bar where she trades gibes with her boss, Gail (Laverne Cox).

When one of her former colleagues, Ryan (Bo Burnham), turns up for a coffee and wants to ask Cassie out, it’s a chance to break free of the destructive cycle she has created. Ryan has become a successful pediatrician but is still in touch with the old gang. This sets Cassie on another path, as she begins to find ways to destroy the peace of mind of everyone associated with Nina’s death. This includes her fellow student, Madison (Alison Brie); the Dean, who let the incident slide (Connie Britton); and the lawyer who pressured Nina into dropping the charges (Alfred Molina). Only the latter has repented of his evil deeds. He’s the sole character apart from Cassie that seems to have a conscience.

When Ryan catches Cassie on one of her drunken masquerades, she takes stock of her life and seems ready to abandon the weridness. But there’s another twist in this very black tale, as she sets off to crash the bachelor party of Nina’s assailant, and respectable anaesthesiologist, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell).

Ultimately Promising Young Woman lets nobody off the hook. Cassie’s obsessions lead her down a self-destructive path while everyone else is crushed by the weight of their past misdeeds. The story is never less than absorbing, but instead of a clear-cut moral it delivers a grim warning that everything you do will come back to get you at some stage. John Calvin couldn’t have made the point better. This is an impressive first film, but I’d be very surprised if the members of the Academy will be voting for a feature that makes them think ruefully of the skeletons in their own closets.

Go right ahead, he isn’t listening


Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal could just as easily be called The Sound of Silence. Although it starts with a roar of dirge-like music from Ruben (Riz Ahmed) on drums, and his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), on vocals and guitar, it quickly descends into blankness. It’s almost as if a switch is tripped in Ruben’s head, but it’s a switch that can’t be turned back on.

The duo are touring the States in a mobile home, playing gigs in one city after another. They have a fan base and have already cut a number of records. As the story progresses we’ll begin to understand the closeness of their relationship. Lou has rescued Ruben from his drug addiction, while Ruben has given Lou a reason to stop cutting grooves in her arm. The music has brought them together and given them a sense of direction.

When Ruben is struck deaf it could hardly be a bigger catastrophe. He wants to keep performing, but he can’t. The whole foundation of his life with Lou is suddenly undermined. Marder takes us right into Ruben’s head, letting us hear the same dim, muffled sounds that he hears, when he hears at all. Perhaps the greatest strength of this movie is that it brings home to the viewer the full meaning of what it is to be deaf – or rather to be struck deaf, being suddenly excluded from things one has always taken for granted.

The largest part of the story takes place at a community for the deaf where Ruben goes, with the greatest reluctance, to learn how to cope with his disability. It’s run by a lean, old Vietnam vet named Joe (Paul Raci), who demands a highly disciplined approach from his charges. At first Ruben is lost, but gradually begins to adjust to his new surroundings and new companions.

He can’t, however, reconcile himself to never hearing again, and pines for Lou. The final chapters find him trying to reconnect, while perhaps becoming reconciled to his condition. The message, which falls in line with Joe’s philosophy, is that deafness is not a stigma but a different way of experiencing the world.

This doesn’t mean that Ruben’s experiences aren’t suitably frightening and unsettling. Riz Ahmed spends most of the movie looking startled, as if he can hardly believe his predicament. Being on-screen for almost the entire movie he has plenty of time to create a convincing character and doesn’t shirk the task.

It may be that Ahmed gives the Best Actor award a nudge this year, but overall, Sound of Metal is probably too interiorised to match it with those features that deal with prominent political and social issues. It’s an indication of the film’s quality that it has secured a place on this gilded short-list.





Promising Young Woman

Written & directed by Emerald Fennell

Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina, Chris Lowell, Max Greenfield, Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown

USA, rated MA 15+, 113 mins




Sound of Metal

Directed by Darius Marder

Written by Darius & Abraham Marder, after a story by Darius Marder & Derek Cianfrance

Starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Almaric, Chelsea Lee

USA, unrated, 120 mins



Published in the Australian Financial Review, 24 April, 2021