By John H. Foote
(****) Streaming / On Demand
Talk about a scorched earth film! Talk about an unexpected, scorching performance from Carey Mulligan, who gives what I believe to be the years very best performance!
Mulligan has been very busy since her stunning work in An Education (2009) which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, though her work has been up and down. She gave a brilliant performance in the disturbing drama Never Let Me Go (2010) and should have been a Supporting Actress nominee in Shame (2011) opposite Michael Fassbender. I believe her to be the finest Daisy ever put on screen in The Great Gatsby (2013), with Leonardo Di Caprio as her Gatsby, and she very nearly stole Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) as a two-timing folk singer. Strong performances in Suffragette (2015), Mudbound (2017) and Wildlife (2018) kept her in the public eye and in the minds of critics, and this will forever seal her as being one of the finest actresses in movies.
I was reminded of Robert De Niro’s avenging angel in Taxi Driver (1976) watching the film, though the difference is quite clear – Travis was insane, Cassie is not, just deeply damaged and angry at an event that has altered the course of her life. Both characters plan their actions meticulously and when they execute their plans, hell is unleashed by both. The major differences are within the films, and the director’s approach to each. Scorsese kept Taxi Driver dark and unsettling from the very first shot, and suggested hell was breaking through to New York City in his iconic film. Gifted Emerald Fennell (remember that name!) fills the screen with colour, blazing nail polish, crazy costumes, and intense red lipstick in creating her lacerating movie that is part black comedy, part message film about a woman lashing back after her good friend was raped in college.
Once a promising young medical student, Cassie (Mulligan) was forever damaged, deeply traumatized, after her best friend was raped at a frat party, an event witnessed by the party goers. Left to care for her friend, she did so until the young woman took her own life, supposedly, so ashamed of what had taken place. Though Cassie took the crime to the authorities and the college Dean, she got no action, it was quietly swept away leaving her devastated and disillusioned. Working now in a coffee shop, a job she hates, obviously, Cassie does have an exciting night life, though it could be dangerous to her.
We see her at the film’s beginning in a bar, plastered, beyond drunk, that point when passing out is just around the corner. Spotted by a group of guys, one steps forward to be a gentleman and get her home safely but on the way suggests they stop at his place for a drink. Cassie mutters something (Yes? No?) and they arrive at his home. It is not long before he is attempting to undress Cassie, as she has passed out on the bed.
The next scene we see her strutting down the street carrying her shoes, barefoot and stone cold sober, not the least bit drunk, clear eyed, near giddy with the confidence that she has conquered another one in what appears to be a long line of men with date rape on their minds. She comes home to her parents’ house and pulls out a book filled with items stroked out, her count no doubt. This is Cassie’s revenge for what happened to her friend.
Each night she goes out, much to the chagrin of her parents, deeply disappointed in their daughter, and pretends to be drunk, waiting for a guy to pick her up and take her back to their place. She allows them to get just so far, and as they are moving in to rape her, she sits up and asks clearly, the frightening words, “What are you doing?” stunning them. Mercilessly, Cassie leaves with their manhood in tatters, destroyed, the men quivering in terror for what she does to them. Realizing she is not an easy mark, hell no is she not, they panic, they sputter, they proceed to make utter fools of themselves while making clear they are predators and rapists, and Cassie has come calling.
She begins to see a young man she knew in medical school, but when she sees his face on the tape of her friend’s rape, her plans evolve for him. From him she exacts the address of where a bachelor party is being held for the rapist who first attacked her friend and turned the rape into a much-seen event. Dressing in a nurse costume, pretending to be a stripper she arrives at the party and her fun begins.
The film is too smart to turn this into a straight, typical revenge film, and the end has a few twists, but each ups the ante, and shows the manipulative genius of Cassie and her dedication, near obsession to getting even for her friend.
Mulligan is astonishing as something far more than your average avenging angel, she is an intelligent hellion, very aware of the price she might pay for what she is doing, but that intelligence also tells her everything she does is worth everything she is doing. Someone must pay, her friend is dead, so come hell or high water, someone will pay. Mulligan can say more with a glance or look than most actors can with a litany of monologues, and when she fixes her glare on the men attempting to rape her and suddenly clear eyed and sober asks “What are you doing?” we feel their hearts stop, they must know the line they have crossed with this woman and their lives are about to be forever altered. Watch how she toys with the Dean, who swept the matter of her friend under the carpet, calling it “he said, she said” despite the existence of a tape! Watch the wheels start turning when she hears the man who raped her friend is getting married and a bachelor party is planned. Right away she begins to formulate what she will do. Cassie even has the foresight to plan how to get this man even if she is killed! Her brilliance knows no end. The same is true of Mulligan who takes the role and makes it her own in every way. The Academy will nominate five actresses for Best Actress, but why not be just and hand Mulligan the Academy Award right now, TODAY. Hers is a performance for the ages.
Emerald Fennell wrote the script and took it to Margot Robbie to produce for her own production company, which Robbie did happily. I wonder if after seeing the film if she had regrets at not taking the role of Cassie for herself? No doubt Robbie would have rocked the part, but I think only Mulligan could have taken this into the ages.
I cannot remember a directorial debut this great since Charles Laughton directed his only film The Night of the Hunter (1955). Smart, confident, and cocky, Fennell brings to the film exactly the jaunty tone it needs for the power it exudes. She and Mulligan are like De Niro and Scorsese have been at their best, absolutely in step with one another, their understanding of the subject in step with the other. The film often has a bounce to it, a glee that is strictly the doing of the director, who knows she needs that jaunty aspect, and the color to make the film work in the very dark manner it does.
Strong supporting performances come from Bo Burnham as Dr. Cooper, the young man from Cassie’s past, and Clancy Brown as her father and Jennifer Coolidge as her mother, both disappointed as to where their daughter is in her life.
Brilliant, deeply troubling, intensely astounding, this one is a masterpiece and very much one of the years very best films. Oscar awaits.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.