It's hard not to be energised by a movie that believes things as hard as Promising Young Woman does, even it ends up doing a remarkably poor job of presenting what it believes. And doubly so when it dumps so many buckets of style over the proceedings, giving us one of the year's most glowingly over-saturated movies. Honestly, there's only one reason this is a negative review at all, and I mostly can't (or anyways, won't) talk about it: the film has a disastrously bad ending - by far the worst, relative to the rest of the film, that I've seen all year. It leaves most of the film's themes muddy at best, blithering and incoherent at worst, while also being illegible in terms of character motivation. Maybe worst of all, it's so fucking long: from the point at which the movie is over to the point at which it actually stops, a full 15 minutes go by, and this in a movie that's 113 minutes from start to finish in the first place.

Not that the ending is the only problem, just that it's the fatal one. The other biggest one is that we have here a very curious movie that proudly announces how aggressive and in-your-face subversive it's going to be, before immediately being rather considerably more demure than films doing basically exactly the same thing back in the 1970s and 1980s. The subversion is perhaps that it's taking a bloodthirsty genre and making it chaste. The genre being the sordid old rape revenge thriller, in this case holding off on the revenge, and talking around the concept of "rape" so skittishly that the actual R-word is never once said in the entire movie. It is is a thriller which its righteously psychopathic avenging angel lures would-be rapists in, springs her trap on them with cold-blooded pleasure at watching their dawning awareness of how badly they've fucked up, and then... lectures at them sternly before letting them go. And I guess that's what we're going to get from Twitter-era social justice message movies, but I'm not sorry to say that I prefer my rape revenge thrillers where she chops a guy's dick off with a meat cleaver.

The avenger in this case is one Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), 30 years old and untethered since she dropped out of medical school some years ago; her dear friend Nina, the star pupil at the school, was sexually assaulted, and Cassie left to help her deal with the fallout of this event. With Nina having since died - the caouse of death is a notably absent piece of information, but I imagine we're meant to assume it was post-traumatic suicide - Cassie has turned herself into a vigilante against rape culture, as we see in the opening scene: she goes to clubs, feigns being fall-down, passed-out drunk, and accompanying men of ill intent back to their homes, where she pounces on them and does, well, nothing at all that will have a lasting effect, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure if we're meant to notice that or not. Writer-director Emerald Fennell, making her feature debut in both of those capacities (she's also written a healthy number of television episodes), doesn't seem to have completely worked out what we're meant to think about Cassie's actions, nor how much we're meant to view her as a righteous hero, versus how much she's understandably overreacting to a terrible, broken culture, versus how much she's a scary psycho who has been driven to madness by a mad world. And this is another place where I would have had a much happier impression of the movie if it didn't have that abysmal ending.

At any rate, Mulligan is playing the character up to the hilt; it's not a complicated performance, but it's a ferociously committed one, and she's clearly having a blast playing a clever predator, caked in ominous, vamp-like makeup that accentuates her thin, hungry smile. She's not so much resolving the contradictions in Fennell's conception of the character as blasting them all away to replace them with a vision of Cassie as a kind of primordial, elemental force. Promising Young Woman is, by and large better at casting than getting good performances out of people: Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are excellent choices to portray sleazy, shady men who of course would never think of themselves as the kind of man to take advantage of a drunk woman, even when they're in the act of doing so, and Bo Burnham's a fine incarnation of the anodyne, impersonal guy who seems nice and safe until the shoe inevitably drops, but none of them are really doing anything (and I'd say that Burnham's presence actively harms the movie; he's such a damp rag of a character that it's hard to believe someone as colossally large in her personality as Cassie else would want to spend ten minutes in his company, meaning that he immediately becomes nothing but a walking, talking plot mechanic). Same with Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown, playing Cassie's increasingly weary parents, who give the film a huge jolt of energy when they first show up, and then just kind of fall away.

Still, Mulligan's furious, calculating anger is enough to keep the film on track, especially combined with the delightful flourishes of bright, candy-colored style; Promising Young Woman is lousy with bright colors in all sorts of hectic, cheerful shades of pink and blue and lime green. It's a visual spectacle that fairly quickly turns into something aggressive and pushy, so damned cheerful looking that you start to be aware how nastily ironic it is; the whole film is a sarcastic dark comedy, but the color design ends up being the best of its blackhearted jokes. While I have my doubts about Fennell's writing, her directing chops are undeniable: the film is full of shocking compositions with woozy amounts of headspace, some very blunt religious art imagery that makes the argument that women are the martyrs being crucified in a patriarchal world, pointedly awkward, fuck-you pauses in the rhythm of scenes - quite a lot of great pacing, in fact. We see the same big scene multiple times, in which Cassie lolls around like a sloppy drunk and then bolts up to pounce on her prey, but every time it works, a slow burn followed by a quick slash of menace.

The film's second half starts leaking air, in part because it moves from Cassie's general actions as an anti-rape Batman to specific choices she makes as part of exorcising her dark past. This is where the script starts to get really tangled up in what the hell it's trying to say - "fuck all rapists" is a fine place to start, but it's not a plot, and when the movie tries to make it a plot, it starts arguing in all different directions, more like an out-of-control Gatling gun of rhetorical flourishes than than a pointed takedown of anything specific about male entitlement or rape culture (it feels very telling, and I'm not sure if it's in a good way, that the film's most precise and powerful scenes are the ones attacking complacent women who enable rape culture rather than men who actually commit rape). And this second-act deflation carries us right up that jaw-dropping ending, which seems so purposefully to miss the point that the rest of the film seems to be making that I feel like I'm probably missing the actual point of the rest of the film. Still, the film has some pretty swell moves, it looks terrific, and it certainly makes Fennell a director to look out for, though hopefully she'll leave Fennell the screenwriter behind next time.