Injustice, inequality fuel two angry films

A disguised Cassie (Carrie Milligan) is on the prowl for sexual predators in Promising Young Woman.

By Richard Ades

Righteous anger has been such an overwhelming force in society recently that it’s not surprising it sometimes makes its way into the movies. One of the prime examples was released to theaters in late 2020 and subsequently was named the best film of that year by my colleagues in the Columbus Film Critics Association.

Promising Young Woman is the sad and provocative tale of Cassie (Carrie Milligan), a 30-ish coffee shop clerk who lives with her parents and has long since abandoned her career goal of becoming a doctor. Her reason for doing so isn’t revealed until well after we see the dangerous charade it’s led her into. Hitting the local bars and acting like she’s drunk herself into oblivion, she methodically fools men into thinking they can take advantage of her “helpless” condition—only to discover otherwise after they’ve taken her home.

Written and directed by Emerald Fenner, Promising Young Woman has been called a “Me Too” revenge tale, but that’s somewhat misleading. Cassie isn’t out for blood as much as she’s in search of justice and relief from the sorrow she feels over a long-ago sexual assault. Just how she goes about that search, and the psychological cost she pays in the process, is revealed so slyly and powerfully that Columbus critics also gave the film four additional citations, including nods for best actress (for Milligan) and best original screenplay (for Fenner).

Oscar nominations are likewise predicted to be in store for this offbeat thriller. Luckily for the curious but safety-minded, it is now being made available through VOD outlets.

Balram (Adarsh Gourav) has dreams of becoming a successful entrepreneur in The White Tiger.

Even angrier than Promising Young Woman is The White Tiger, an India-set tale that American director Ramin Bahrani adapted from a book by Aravind Adiga. Its plucky protagonist is Balram (played with ferocious wit by Adarsh Gourav), who was born into poverty but is committed to becoming a successful entrepreneur by any means necessary. He narrates the story of his efforts in the form of a letter he’s writing to a Chinese official who’s expected to visit India.

Balram believes his main problem is the servile attitude he shares with other Indians who weren’t born into wealth. As he sees it, this leads them to spend all their energy serving masters who often repay them with abuse and inadequate wages. Balram is determined to break this curse by finding a master who is worthy of his service and can help him better himself.

His choice is Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), a young businessman who’s just returned from the U.S. with his Indian American wife, Pinky (Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra). Balram has observed that Ashok is more decent than either his wealthy father (Mahesh Manjrekar) or older brother, who’s nicknamed the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya). Unfortunately, though, old habits die hard. Neither Ashok nor Balram is immune to the proclivities of his respective class, leading to an uncomfortable situation that threatens to derail Balram’s quest to move up in society.  

With an amoral and ruthless “hero,” a keen awareness of social injustice and a tendency toward dark humor mixed with tragedy, The White Tiger will remind many of 2019’s Oscar-winning South Korean film, Parasite. The newer work isn’t quite that sublime, but it does entertain and challenge viewers in the process of venting its righteous anger.   

Promising Young Woman: 4½ stars (out of 5)

The White Tiger: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Promising Young Woman can be viewed at select theaters and is available through VOD outlets beginning Jan. 15. The White Tiger was released to theaters (including Columbus’s Marcus Crosswoods Cinema) on Jan. 13 and will be available through Netflix beginning Jan. 22. Both films are rated R.