“Promising Young Woman” Has Trouble Choosing a Lane When it Comes to Reality, but the Ride is Worth Taking
How do our expectations of reality translate to rape-revenge stories in film?
Warning: Spoilers + Trigger Warning (sexual assault)
The trailer for Promising Young Woman is misleading. If, like me, you were expecting a movie about a woman who targets scummy men at nightclubs by posing as helplessly drunk, goes home with them, and then murders them for their transgressions, you’d be wrong. That is, however, what it implies, and so when I didn’t see that play out in the opening scene, I was a little confused about where we were headed. The movie as a whole is quite dark, but its sinister vibe manifests elsewhere.
I’ve seen my fair share of misleading trailers, we all have. What affected me more this time around was that I truly wanted the movie promised in the trailer, and what I got was something else. Given my patriarchal fatigue, I wanted to see a story about men being adequately punished for committing unforgivable crimes against women, and while there was a bit of that, the ultimate punishment the villains receive just doesn’t fit the crime. While reasonably realistic, it was a letdown to me after everything I’d been through to get there.
This film starts off oozing with apathy, and while we do get glimpses of enthusiasm and inklings of hope as the story progresses, the overarching theme of hopelessness doesn’t much let up. Following the traumatic death of her best friend, Nina, who we learn was sexually assaulted at a college party while intoxicated, the main character, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), has dropped out of medical school, works at a coffee shop, and lives with her parents. She’s just turned 30 and spends her free time frequenting bars and nightclubs and faking insobriety in order to lure men with bad intentions. Unsurprisingly, she never leaves unsuccessful in her pursuit. We see even the nicest of guys fully ready to take advantage of her and the situation. Once home with them, she continues her ruse for as long as it takes to catch these men in the act—making advances while she’s unresponsive, ignoring her slurring requests to stop or call her a cab, taking her underwear off, etc.—then she “sobers up,” confronts them, and leaves.
For so many reasons this felt anticlimactic to me, and I had a hard time identifying from what reality the film was operating. If we’re to accept that this story takes place in our reality and not a fantasy world, then odds are that sooner or later, Cassie’s encounters won’t go as planned. Depending on the guy, rape feels inevitable, assault of some kind feels likely, death feels probable, however, her safety never seems to be a concern. She’s seen walking home barefoot from the first encounter the following morning, and the next, she presumably calls an Uber, but it’s not clear. Both of these scenarios aren’t the safest options for a woman on her own, so again, are we to accept the fantasy where Cassie remains an unharmed vigilante for the duration of the film, or is she just really, really lucky?
Soon, Cassie meets Ryan (Bo Burnham) when he comes into the coffee shop where she works and he asks her out. She declines, but he persists, and she eventually agrees to go out with him and they start a would-be romance. Next, we see Cassie’s double-life at play. She spends time with Ryan while continuing to pursue victims as part of her vigilante routine. It’s revealed during the coffee shop encounter that Ryan and Cassie actually met during med school. They ran in similar circles, and as such, he casually mentions some mutual acquaintances, with whom he still keeps in touch. She’s clearly triggered when he offhandedly mentions a couple of names, one of which being Al Monroe, who raped her best friend Nina back then, and who is now engaged to be married.
After hearing this news, Cassie embarks upon a series of ‘side quests’ involving people from her med school days, starting with a woman named Madison, and ending with Al Monroe’s bachelor party. Quite a lot happens between here and the end of the film. Her relationship with Ryan gets serious quickly, with both of them admitting to falling for each other. There’s an incident with her former school dean, which is one of the more truly savage pranks I’ve seen on film, and which serves to reveal more of Nina’s story. Cassie confronts the lawyer who represented Al Monroe when Nina accused him of rape, but when she goes to his house, he appears to have turned over a new leaf and shows remorse for his actions. And in a final scene with Madison, she turns over a video to Cassie that becomes the catalyst for the crux of the third act.
The video not only serves as visual proof that Al Monroe did indeed assault Nina all those years ago, but it also reveals that Ryan was at that party. We hear his voice on the video as he makes light of the situation and more importantly, does nothing to stop it. Heartbroken and enraged by the discovery, Cassie confronts Ryan and shows him the video. He pleads with her that it was “a long time ago,” “we were young,” then fires back with juvenile insults when she breaks up with him. This scene cut me deep because I wanted to believe in Ryan as the redeemer. I thought he’d at least be remorseful for his actions, and he wasn’t. Instead, he was defensive and outraged at her accusal that he was just as much to blame as Al. It’s in this moment that we know we’ve lost Cassie to her cause for good. There’s no going back.
The last big moment takes place at Al’s bachelor party at a cabin in the woods in which Cassie, dressed as a candy-coated stripper, crashes and seeks her revenge. Her plan doesn’t go how she’d hoped, however, and when she drugs all the guys at the party save Al in an attempt to get him alone, he becomes unhinged and things get rapidly out of hand. Her intention to handcuff Al to the upstairs bed and carve Nina’s name into his flesh with a scalpel goes awry when he breaks free of one of the handcuffs, overpowers her, and smothers her with a pillow.
This scene was especially hard to watch. The expression on Al’s face as he uses the full force of his body to smash Cassie into submission underneath the pillow is genuinely disturbing. In a further effort to take control of the situation he pleads with her to “stop moving,” but she doesn’t give up easily. The sheer panic and desperation of his actions in this scene prove to me that he’s the same guy from med school who will do anything to preserve his image, even if that means destroying someone else, preferably someone more vulnerable. In a shocking yet predictable move, Al’s buddy Joe (Max Greenfield) comes upstairs the next morning, learns what happened, and basically unfazed, gets to work orchestrating a plan to dispose of Cassie’s body and cover their tracks, like it’s par for the goddamn course. Nothing like a bit of casual, pre-wedding murder to get a guy in the mood for a lifetime of commitment.
The most upsetting part about this whole thing is that it’s believable. It doesn’t seem farfetched or fantastic to me at all. While it’s extreme, apparently the version where Cassie carves Nina’s name into the chest of her abuser is less true to life and is perhaps why director, Emerald Fennell doesn’t let us have that. I found this reality deeply saddening.
Alright. This ending, though. For me, any lawful punishment these men might receive could only pale in comparison to what Cassie endured, but what happens to our villains is again, probably the truest to life. Cops show up to Al’s wedding where he and Joe are taken away in handcuffs. We learn that Cassie mailed the damning video to Al’s former lawyer with instructions to turn it over to the police. All the while, she’s scheduled texts to Ryan’s phone explaining the situation in so many words, and we see that unfold at the wedding as Al and Joe are taken away. Because you guessed it. After everything that’s happened, Ryan still goes to the wedding, proving yet again, that he’s still the spineless jellyfish he’s always been.
The cops coming to uphold the law now, only after two—probably more—women have suffered at the hands of these reckless men, feels again, anticlimactic, however, it says more about our world than it does about the film. The same law enforcement that failed Nina, that continues to defend men and not believe women, and that “doesn’t want to ruin someone’s life (a man) over an accusation (by a woman)” ultimately comes through for Cassie only after she’s gone and the damage is done. The irony sure isn’t lost on me.
Even though I think the film struggles with defining the reality it wants us to accept, it’s still is a movie I’d recommend to almost anyone (unless of course, you’re dealing with trauma, in which case, maybe skip it). It should be noted how visually stunning this film is. The colors, costumes, and set design are on point. Further, the performances are wonderful. Carey Mulligan is mesmerizing and Bo Burnam, charming, and the scenes of their relationship blossoming are truly some of the sweetest. The score is something else. A haunting instrumental version of “Toxic” by Britney Spears? Yes, please. An entire scene devoted to Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind?” Thank you.
The biggest reason to see this film to me, however, is because I think it sheds light on an important topic that we should all be discussing. While it may have been a personal wish of mine to see the film venture further into fantastic territory where revenge was concerned, I think its portrayal of trauma, consent, and the inequality that exists for women seeking justice for sexual assault is valid and leaves us with a lot to ponder. Plus, I’ll always have 2017’s Revenge to turn to when I’m feeling like cathartically fucking up the patriarchy, so there’s that.
Promising Young Woman is currently streaming on Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime.