Promising Young Woman
*** Carey Mulligan often delivers her best work in unexpected places: snooping quietly through a BBC detective series, overlooked in a Paul Dano family drama, ripping Llewyn Davis a new one. But Promising Young Woman, the debut feature from Killing Eve scribe Emerald Fennell, feels designed to showcase Mulligan. She plays Cassie, a mysteriously reclusive barista who exposes men's sex crimes by night. Across from a cast typically connoting standup dudes (Bo Burnham, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, Max Greenfield, Adam Brody), Cassie knowingly awaits their heel turns, and Mulligan is as malleable as this tone-shifting movie, seemingly flicking the light in her eyes on and off at will. Distracting though the leaps from gonzo thriller to credible rom-com to edgy character study may be, the ambition of Promising Young Woman is impressive. Perhaps Fennell's shrewdest move is suggesting the film's bad men are actually too guilty to let these more earnest genres take hold of her film. So, thriller it is. And a riveting one throughout, even if the film's taste for neatness and resolution cleaves off a full exploration of Cassie's catharsis and damage. A distinctly #MeToo film, Promising Young Woman knows well (to the point of icy mockery) the tricks men use to justify predatory behavior. And in Mulligan, you couldn't ask for a better actor to grind this ax. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. On Demand.
Pieces of a Woman
** Pieces of a great film don't necessarily make a great film. While Kornél Mundruczó's haunting saga of a home birth gone bad unleashes a deluge of wondrous performances, it isn't as profound as it wants to be. Vanessa Kirby (The Crown, Mission: Impossible—Fallout) plays Martha Weiss, a woman who descends into the haze of grief after the death of her baby. The birth scene is a master class in artful traumatization—it unfolds in a 24-minute shot that seems to drill every ounce of Martha's agony into your body. Unfortunately, the film's narrative discipline slackens as Martha's anguish deepens. Rather than offer a nuanced portrait of a grieving family, Kata Wéber's screenplay abruptly turns Martha's partner (Shia LaBeouf) into a philandering villain and forces Martha's mother (Ellen Burstyn) to deliver guilt-tripping lines so heavy-handed that even the formidable Burstyn almost breaks beneath their weight. Pieces of a Woman improves when Martha's midwife (Molly Parker) is unjustly tried for manslaughter, but when Kirby and Parker wordlessly forge an emotional connection across the courtroom, they remind you what the film should have been about—two women painfully and intimately united by tragedy. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Netflix.