(CW: discussions of rape and sexual assault.)
I don’t think it’s an accident that Anthony Willis’ string arrangement of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” sounds like a swarm of bees, the angry and volatile kind, conjuring a venom dipped revamp of the classic Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composition. It’s the most dramatic attempt in Emerald Fennell’s film Promising Young Woman to (supposedly) invert the sugar sweet, pretty pop aesthetic into something darker and more poisonous, from its pop songs (Charli XCX’s “Boys”, Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind”, etc.) to its romantic comedy tropes. (For the record, “Toxic” was always, I think, a two pronged track, about a bad relationship. It’s in the title.)
Though perhaps, beneath its impressive minimalism and beyond its somewhat on the nose application, it might be on the savvier side as far as the choices made in this film’s finale: it’s not Cassie (Carey Mulligan), the traumatized and vengeful protagonist whose escapades to unveil the way rape culture infects us all won’t revere the fate of the friend she’s doing this for, who’s “toxic”, even though part of the conceit is that she is like a candy apple with a razor tucked beneath its skin. But, she also has, arguably, a “toxic” relationship to revenge itself, never quite realizing that the men she lures and lectures and the complicit women she tricks will never offer the catharsis she desires. For a moment, there’s a hint of self-actualization, on the stoop of her late friend’s house, speaking with her friend’s mother. But it passes, and she’s back, in sexy nurse cosplay (one of many costumes that look like someone read the wiki page for Ms. 45 and nothing else), ready to take down the man, Al (Chris Lowell), who raped her best friend and got off, at his bachelor party.