The Promising Young Woman
This review contains spoilers.
Promising Young Woman felt, to me, like a movie about men. The many men in the movie give scene-stealing, often delightfully comedic performances, which is not what I wanted to take away from a movie that I thought would be about Carey Mulligan’s character, Cassie, murdering rapists. More than that, the women who do exist are barely present. Cassie’s mother is subdued, and her only friend is a joy in her few moments, but neither one of them knows Cassie at all.
Cassie closed herself off after her childhood best friend, Nina, is raped and then, presumably, kills herself. We’re never told either of these things in words. Nina is Cassie’s entire focus, but the most she appears is in a few childhood pictures and a short speech from Cassie very close to the end of the film. Cassie is closed off to the audience as well. We’re not in her head at any point, because the film revels in shocking us with vivid set designs, flashy costumes, and Cassie’s choices.
One of the most contentious elements of the movie is Cassie’s death at the hands of Nina’s rapist. We learn, after, that she set up a failsafe for herself. Because she didn’t return, the police are sent to find her body and arrest her anticipated killer, and they’re also provided with a video of the seven-years-past rape. Cassie’s ex-boyfriend receives pre-scheduled texts notifying him that she’s responsible for what’s happening from beyond the grave. Pre-scheduled texts are not real, but in order to pull off the surprise and the tone, the movie could not have spent time showing someone else typing out and sending pre-scripted texts.
The movie also doesn’t spend time showing us that Cassie knew she could die if she went after Nina’s rapist, because the value is placed on the shock of it all rather than the character’s journey through her trauma. We don’t get to know if Cassie has ever been assaulted herself. It’s never brought up, which feels absurd in a movie that’s focused on this particular way that men universally move throughout the world. But the movie doesn’t care how many women have been victims of assault or how they, generally or collectively, experience the world. There’s no feeling of universality or connection for women, aside from Cassie absorbing Nina’s trauma. It’s just about Cassie.
There’s a real sense of exceptionalism to Cassie. To me, this movie feels like Oscar bait — so much directionless effort was put into the aesthetic, a background to the focus on Carey Mulligan’s performance and screenwriter and director Emerald Fennell’s fascination with her character. More significantly, nothing Cassie does feels based in reality. She goes out every night to act drunk and get taken home by a man, and then confront him for his behavior, but she never gets harmed. She stares down catcallers on the street and smashes a man’s headlights for yelling at her with no consequence. Cassie is apparently untouchable, except for when she allows herself to be assaulted.
It’s just such a strange choice — especially when left undiscussed — to have a woman traumatized by someone else’s assault respond by simulating assaults against herself. She routinely prompts men to do what would be non-consensual if she was really drunk. It’s not at all grounded in reality for this to be the only way in which she gets harmed, until the end of the movie — and even then her death is, maybe, also her choice.
It’s framed, in the few moments of explanation we receive, as a failsafe, as mentioned earlier. But the more I think about the movie, the more it feels like Cassie must have known her death at Al Monroe’s hands was the only way to come close to the revenge she wants. Cassie and Nina were both so affected by the rape because everyone brushed it off, blamed Nina or laughed at her, decided the rapist’s future was more important; this lack of accountability is the focus of the first two thirds of the movie. However, when Cassie obtains a video of the seven-years-past rape, we’re told that it serves a threat to not just the rapist but every man whose voice can be heard. The movie turns back to its message of men facing no consequences by having a police officer easily believe every lie told by Cassie’s ex about her disappearance — but then when that same police officer shows up to arrest Al Monroe for killing Cassie, we’re told it’s a victory.
Why should there be any sense of relief? Why should we believe that men will suddenly start facing consequences? Cassie handcuffs Al Monroe to a bed and attacks him, and he kills her in self defense. If he faced no consequences for the rape, why would he face any now? Even without the absurdity of the pre-scheduled texts or the weird shift to comedic tone as soon as Cassie is dead, the ending is completely ungrounded from both the reality that the movie established and the real world.
This goes hand in hand with the movie’s other major absurdity. While the trailers imply Cassie might be murdering the men she goes home with, she actually just lectures them. Freaks them out to get them to think twice before bringing another drunk woman home. We see that men think she’s crazy, that something is wrong with her individually, rather than them actually learning anything. And yet the movie acts like Cassie is doing something! It’s not framed like she’s operating outside of reality due to her trauma, it’s framed like she’s doing something cool and special.
And this builds up to her not just allowing herself to be assaulted to get “justice,” but allowing herself to die. If she messes with Al Monroe and then walks away, nothing will change. If she publicizes the video of the rape, nothing will change. But if she dies, Al Monroe will… be inconvenienced until he’s not convicted of anything, probably, but that’s not nothing. The only way to even remotely approach justice for Nina’s rape is to try to get Al Monroe punished for an entirely different type of crime, by prompting him to commit it.
The movie doesn’t demonstrate any actual rape revenge, any way to make rapists face consequences. And this goes unaddressed. It’s not the point of the story. The futility of Cassie’s search for justice is not the point of the story. It’s all dressed up in cotton candy colors and a bow like Cassie is doing something meaningful by choosing to get attacked again and again until she dies, while virtually nothing happens to any of the men except for an arrest that I have no faith in because the entire movie prior told me not to.
You know who does actually face consequences in this movie? Women. Not just Cassie and Nina. Cassie’s big revenge plot against everyone specifically involved in Nina’s rape starts with two women who victim-blamed Nina and prioritized Al Monroe. Cassie gets their former friend drunk and hires a man to follow her into her hotel room and leave her uncertain if she’s been assaulted. She kidnaps the teen daughter of a school dean — though she leaves her unharmed and unfrightened at a diner — to manipulate the dean into thinking her daughter is in a dorm room where she could be assaulted.
Cassie directly interferes with and affects these women’s lives in a way she never does to a man! She plans to do it to the lawyer who intimidated Nina and likely caused her suicide, but the man has already grown on his own, so Cassie forgives him. The scene is moving, but contributes to Cassie only punishing other women (aside from by dying, possibly). This is yet another interesting concept that doesn’t get acknowledged or appear to be intentional.
I have no idea what this movie is trying to say or offer. One dead woman somehow possibly getting indirect “justice” provides no useful commentary and provides nothing to anyone living in the real world. There is no catharsis, no lesson, nothing new. It just says, to me, that Emerald Fennell thinks this one woman she made up is really cool. I wonder whether the movie was always about the world of men plus one exceptional woman, or if Fennell tripped into that, forgetting and eliminating women along the way.