If you didn’t know what they were about, you’d be forgiven for confusing the striking new movies Promising Young Woman and Pieces of a Woman. They do have similarities that go beyond their titles: Each is an intense but uneven film about the lingering effects of trauma and tragedy. And each one centers on an American woman played by an English actor doing her strongest work in some time.
In the devious revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, the actor is Carey Mulligan, and we first see her character, Cassie, nearly passed out drunk in a nightclub. A nice-seeming young man offers to take her home, but instead brings her back to his place. Just as he starts to undress her, Cassie suddenly snaps to attention, fully awake and fully sober. There’s an ominous cut to black; we never find out what happens to the young man or the many others like him.
This is what Cassie does almost every night, offering herself up as bait and turning the tables on would-be rapists. In her mind, she’s making the world a safer place for women, one predator at a time.
Her days are uneventful by comparison. At 30, she works in a coffee shop and still lives at home with her parents. Years ago, she was studying to be a doctor, but dropped out after something terrible happened to her best friend and classmate, Nina.
Promising Young Woman is the first feature written and directed by the English filmmaker Emerald Fennell, who served as showrunner on the second season of Killing Eve. She gives the movie a subversively candy-colored surface; watching it is like biting into a super-sweet cupcake with a surprisingly bitter aftertaste.
Initially it suggests a vigilante movie for the #MeToo era, as Cassie tries to settle the score with everyone, including the dean who turned a blind eye to Nina’s pain. But then it turns into a disquietingly charming romantic comedy, as Cassie — who has trained herself to see every nice guy as a potential threat — unexpectedly falls for a nice guy, played by the comedian and filmmaker Bo Burnham.
These wild tonal shifts seem to echo Cassie’s own identity crisis: the trusting innocent she used to be and the self-destructive avenger she’s become. But as it barrels toward an ending that strives to be tragic, darkly funny and queasily nihilistic all at once, Promising Young Woman starts to feel at odds with itself, as if it were trying to make you cackle and weep at the same time. That it works at all is a credit to Mulligan’s skillful, shape-shifting performance. She gives this audacious but not fully realized movie an emotional coherence it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Vanessa Kirby does something similar in Pieces of a Woman: She’s ultimately more convincing than the movie itself. In this grim English-language drama from the Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and the screenwriter Kata Wéber, Kirby plays a Boston woman named Martha who’s about to have a child with her partner, Sean, played by Shia LaBeouf.
The two have planned on a home birth, which takes place in a brilliantly choreographed and excruciatingly tense sequence that plays out in real time for almost 25 minutes. I’ve never seen anything quite like this scene, in which Martha endures contraction after contraction, retching and groaning in pain while Sean and the midwife, played by a terrific Molly Parker, rush about trying to help. But their efforts end in tragedy, and the baby doesn’t survive.
The story unfolds over the next eight months. Martha’s mother, played by an astonishing Ellen Burstyn, demands justice, urging them to sue the midwife. While Martha retreats into herself, Sean descends noisily into grief and rage. At one point, he becomes frighteningly aggressive in a hard-to-watch sex scene that couldn’t help but remind me that LaBeouf’s former girlfriend recently brought abuse allegations against him. It’s not the first time the actor has given a performance that seems to spring, in part, from his own personal demons.
Pieces of a Woman doesn’t entirely work; it has its share of falsely contrived moments and heavy-handed symbolism. But Kirby’s quiet, implosive performance is breathtaking in its subtlety. You can see in Martha a quality that also defined Kirby’s young Princess Margaret on The Crown: a steely refusal to conform to others’ expectations. Martha recoils when loved ones try to comfort her, and she’s reluctant to pursue the lawsuit; her grief exists beyond the reach of compensation or consolation. You don’t always know what she’s thinking from moment to moment, but you believe her completely.