How 'Promising Young Woman' Uses Pop Music to Reinvent the Revenge Tale

Carey Mulligan told VICE how music from Paris Hilton and Britney Spears gives a fresh perspective to the upcoming thriller.
Carey mulligan in promising young woman
Image courtesy of Focus Features

"I know we have no time, but I have to show you this," Carey Mulligan said as she leaped off the couch to grab her glitter-cased phone from across the Utah hotel room we were ensconced in at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Here," she said triumphantly, holding the screen toward me and flicking through a Spotify playlist full of bubblegum bangers. Charli XCX's "Boys." Britney Spears' "Toxic." Paris Hilton's long-overlooked magnum opus, "Stars Are Blind."


The playlist is the curated handiwork of Promising Young Woman's writer and director Emerald Fennell (a Killing Eve showrunner who also played Camilla on season 3 of The Crown). Fennell, 34, always knew an upbeat, all-woman soundtrack would inform her revenge thriller. In fact, she first sent this playlist to Mulligan with the script for the film, which includes an extended “Stars Are Blind” sing-along scene of Mulligan and co-star Bo Burnham enthusiastically bopping around a pharmacy.

"Everyone knows the song, but the lyrics are actually really difficult to learn because they're quite abstract," Mulligan said of Hilton’s 2006 beachy confection. “Bo was like, 'If T.S. Eliot had written the lyrics to 'Stars Are Blind,' we'd all think it was genius.'”

The use of songs by artists like Hilton and Spears—the intoxicating string version of "Toxic" from the trailer resurfaces at a pivotal moment—could fool you into thinking Promising Young Woman is a light-hearted comedic romp. Instead, the film expertly uses femme pop songs (Spice Girls' "2 Become 1" also has a role) to underscore its critically acclaimed "twisted tale of trauma and revenge" and "bold takedown of rape culture and those that defend it."

Mulligan stars as Cassie, a woman who dropped out of med school to support a friend following a traumatic experience with sexual assault. Now, Cassie is a barista by day and vigilante by night, haunting various bars where she pretends to be blackout drunk while waiting for a "nice guy" (the perfectly cast Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and others) to help her—and inevitably try to assault her.


"Everything that's in this film, in terms of the actual events, is nothing that we haven't seen in a comedy in the last 15 years. We're just seeing it through a different lens. We're just seeing it from a different perspective," Mulligan said. "What's become totally culturally acceptable in film and television, it's just turned on its head. [Fennell has] subverted the genre."

It's best you don't know any more than that before seeing Promising Young Woman. Cassie's exact brand of revenge and how she doles it out to both perpetrating men and complicit women is revealed over the course of the film in satisfyingly jagged twists and turns.

But one thing is clear even from the trailer: Our broken heroine isn't lurking in the shadows. Cassie repeatedly wraps herself in day-glo ensembles, paints her nails like pastel Easter eggs, and sports shampoo-ad-ready Farrah Fawcett waves.


“Em always felt really passionately that this wasn't a woman wearing a gray sweater and staring out a window,” Mulligan said. “Often when we are at our most distressed or facing our most traumatic moments, we dress up. Makeup and hair can actually be a really powerful tool, and for Cassie, it's all a construct. The hair and the nails, it's all her mask. It's all part of hiding in plain sight.”

The film is currently at 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and marks the boldest role to date for 34-year-old Mulligan, who made her big-screen debut as the boy-crazy Kitty Bennet in 2005's Pride and Prejudice and has since earned acclaim for her performances in An Education , The Great Gatsby, and Wildlife. As an executive producer on Promising Young Woman, the British star turned to John Krakauer's Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town and the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground for help understanding the experiences of sexual assault survivors, since, as she said, "I'm so fortunate to not have experienced this in my own life."


Above all, Mulligan said she hopes audiences will walk away from Promising Young Woman with an understanding of the role we've all played in enabling predators, and that it’s not just the Harvey Weinstein-esque "absolute monsters" who must be dealt with—it's the nice guys and bystanders, too.

“We've all grown up in this culture, so it's worthy of everyone examining their own behavior and what they've dismissed or what they've made jokes about. We're all complicit in that," Mulligan said. "If we just chuck all the real baddies in jail and call it a day, we will go backwards. It's much more about what do we expect? What's normalized for girls and boys? That's when we can really affect change going forward."

In her own experiences in a post-#MeToo Hollywood, Mulligan—who's married to and shares two children with Mumford & Sons' Marcus Mumford—said she’s seen small but significant changes taking hold.

"It's so pervasive, but the first production I did after the #MeToo movement started was a play [ Girls & Boys], and on my first day of rehearsals I was given a three-page document, a code of conduct, to sign," she said. "It said, 'This is how you should behave in your work, and this is what is okay and this is what is not okay.' They supervised us reading it and explained it. And I feel like those kinds of measures in our industry, in every industry [are crucial]. You can't then turn around and say you didn't know."

Promising Young Woman opens in theaters April 17.