Promising Young Woman

Something I think worthwhile to say first & foremost, is that Promising Young Woman isn’t actually so much a ‘rape revenge thriller’ in the traditional meaning. What it is more so, and how filmmaker Emerald Fennell tends to present it in interviews, is a look at that old chestnut ‘female rage,’ but specifically how grief and anger without an outlet to justice can calcify into a kind of self-destructive addiction cycle—perhaps indicting rape culture even more by showing how the damage from sexual assault can continue to eat like cold poison into the people nearby.

That said, and this is what is important to me to get across to any potential viewers: I don’t necessarily think this is a movie for survivors. I also think that’s okay, because I don’t think it intended to be, I think it intended to get some upsetting points across to other groups and it’s sure doing it. But what is much less okay is that there are people going into Promising Young Woman thinking it’s going to be a spikily cathartic bubblegum pink vengeance narrative, only to find that is spiky and it is bubblegum pink, but its thrills are frequently more queasy than empowering, and that pastel candy shell is (deliberately) coating something very bleak.

I am pro this movie ultimately, though I definitely had to sit with it for a few hours and examine all the thoughts and feelings it had churned up before I could tell! Which is why I cannot imagine writing further about my response to this one without ending up revealing mm, the whole plot. So now I’m going to—read on only if you don’t mind utter spoilers.

** spoiler line **

There are a lot of twists in Promising Young Woman. Some are early and quick, like the shot of a red drip on Cassie’s shin as she walks barefoot down the street to a perfectly deployed cover of ‘It’s Raining Men,’ before the camera to pans up to reveal ketchup dripping off the hot dog she’s eating. These first little twists are to establish mood and intention, that this movie is going to be hopping genres and crossing expectations. The twists later on are much bigger and much more climactic—plot-based, bright-line turns that forcefully shape the closing action (we’ll get to these). But I think the twists that most affected my reaction to this movie were the ones that turned more gradually. The more slowly twisting stuff of the middle portion, less jarring but perhaps more unsteadying. Most fundamentally: that what Cassie was doing wasn’t good. 

At the start, it seems like it is. Not “good” as in like, angelic, but good as in Good For Her. In the very first scene of the movie, we see Cassie engaged in her nightly psychological warfare: a dead-drop reveal to the men who take her home from clubs thinking she’s too drunk to resist their advances that she’s actually stone cold sober and knows exactly what they were trying to do. But she doesn’t kill them or anything, nothing so Jennifer’s Body; perhaps the first genre-bending moment in Promising Young Woman is simply in revealing what kind of movie it isn’t. Instead Cassie merely leaves these men with their shame—or their fear maybe, as Al will describe it later: “every guy’s worst nightmare, getting accused like that”—while she goes home to just record their name and a tally mark in her journal, though with enough force to carve. 

At first it’s all really quite fun, honestly. Especially visually, when Cassie wakes up the next morning in her parents’ ~sublime~ petal pink suburban rococo disaster of a house, and goes off to her listless job as a barista at a Laverne Cox’s neon & Jordan almonds-hued coffee shop—with her multi-colored manicure to match. The whole thing looks like Sofia Coppola’s Barbie Dreamhouse, complete with the attractively depressed woman in the center of it, and I am, historically, a sucker for that particular kind of, I don’t know, confrontationally feminine aesthetic? I feel like when you go that far into the girlish and pretty it starts to feel dangerous. It starts to feel like a trick. I think that’s so perfect here.

And not just because beautiful, (white), Brigitte Bardot-haired Carey Mulligan, like a chilled florist shop rose with the thorns still on, is tormenting men at night in revenge for her late friend Nina—but because things start to get sooo much stickier when tall affable Bo Burnham arrives, a former classmate of hers from before she dropped out of med school, and brings up some names from the past. Things start to twist, in my stomach, when Cassie (Cassandra, of course) begins to track down other women who hadn’t believed her best friend years ago about what was done to her at a party. Cassie uses the same type of weapon here she uses on the men: psychological warfare. But this time, it’s every woman’s worst nightmare: rape. None of them are actually physically hurt, but it’s like she poisons them with this crawling fear they still can’t shake. She makes these women feel disempowered, as Nina did—not from being assaulted, but still intimately, horribly connected to that idea they or someone they care about could have been. Even though it didn’t happen, it’s clear they will never forget what that helpless fear felt like. That is dark, girl.

This was the mid section where I became really unsure where I was with this movie! Because she’s right, but is she in the right? I was entranced and alarmed. But then Cassie began to reach people from the past who did feel great remorse for what happened, and when this also didn’t make her feel any better, when she just continued to drift on after these encounters like a half ghost in her own life, that’s when I began to see shapes in the sickly cotton candy clouds. Mourning. Survivor’s guilt. I realized that while it’s not exactly clear if what Cassie’s doing is accomplishing any good, it’s certainly not good for her. Her vigilantism isn’t bringing her satisfaction or solace. And it isn’t bringing Nina back. We can’t know if Nina would even want her to be doing this.

Even though I hadn’t thought about what exactly might happen, I felt a sense of foreboding finality when she headed for the house where the bachelor party was happening. Somehow or other, this was going to end things. Maybe finally confronting Nina’s rapist would bring her closure, but it certainly must bring something. I didn’t feel shock when he killed her in dubious self-defense, I just felt sad. Watching the scenes of the men after, Al’s shaking relief and tearful thanks at being assured by his friend that he “did nothing wrong,” I suddenly remembered that explanation I’ve read somewhere (and we’re going to be speaking in generalizations for the next little bit) for why women tend to be better at writing men than the other way around. It’s this idea that women have to get good at thinking about men’s inner lives and what drives their feelings and behavior, because understanding them is key to our survival. The same explanation goes for portrayals of white people written by BIPOC—anywhere there’s a power imbalance, it’s the more at-risk group that learns to read the people that can hurt them. Anyway, this one moment here felt so simple and illuminating about so much male behavior: the idea that they could be at fault terrifies them. Meanwhile, women assume that everything is their fault. Really that’s the core of rape culture: she shouldn’t have put herself in that dangerous situation—no responsibility on him to not be that danger.

So, the very end, where Cassie does manage to fuck these men’s lives up a bit from beyond the grave: a win? I don’t think so, but that’s what I think works about it. I think the eye-rolling scene of the detective “interviewing” Ryan when Cassie is simply missing is an indication that we are to assume that just like in our own world, the system is absolutely going to give them all the benefit of the doubt, due not just to being white men but being white male doctors, no less. I think all she’s managed to do is mess up a wedding and put an unsightly blemish on their records. It’s not nothing, but to me the bleakness of this slight victory was resoundingly underscored by the soundtrack: the Juice Newton version of ‘Angel of the Morning’ playing at almost crashingly loud volume. In the end, Cassie finally is angelic, in the sense that she is dead. Two women are dead and gone, her final winking emoticon to her complicit ex like a rictus grin. 

The vision Promising Young Woman presents of the lingering trauma of sexual assault is not strengthening or even hopeful, and while I am very glad not every piece of art dealing with rape is like this one, I do think that what it’s doing is powerful in its own way. This high femme fatale bonbon of a movie curdling over the runtime is something I find really fascinating, though I absolutely don’t begrudge anyone getting a bad stomach ache from it.

★★★★

Minari

Minari (미나리) is an edible plant popular in Korea, somewhat akin to watercress or parsley in appearance and use. It is resilient; when planted on the shores of a wooded creek in rural Arkansas, it grows. This is the metaphor.

Minari the movie is by the Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, and is a semi-autobiographical reflection of his own childhood years on a remote farm in the Ozarks. It is about the farm, but it is mostly about this family, their hopes and hurts and humor. It’s not really a slice-of-life, that doesn’t feel like the right term for something with so much of the softness and piercing poignancy of memory. Maybe like a more grounded Terrence Malick, if you’ll forgive the agriculture pun.

It’s dreamy in the fluid way it moves and in the lingering golden warmth of the light—a movie that warms you just looking at it, even if your heart didn’t feel it too, glowing from within. But it’s not dreamy in the sense of being all sweet weightlessness. Minari folds its delicate layers into something strong, something deep and resonant. It is a flowing drama of the struggles within the souls of these people, and between their souls and the other souls they live with on this land, and their struggles with the land itself—this field, this America.

I respond very feelingly to stories of complexity in ideas and emotions. Contradictory or inconstant notions of nationality and culture, of faith, of gender roles, of what it means to be a partner, a parent, a child, a grandparent—different understandings of all of these experiences and identities slide and glimmer through this movie like sunlight dappled through the trees over the little stream, multi-faceted and ever-shifting. I can’t talk directly about one of my favorite scenes without giving too much away, but I can say that I think part of the reason it rocked me so was the realization that Lee Isaac Chung’s script wasn’t flattening his story into one structural shape that every narrative thread would follow, but instead, like in life, different arcs were having their peaks and valleys on their own time. It means that nothing is one-note, the varied tones drifting in and out of discord and harmony.

Minari is beautiful. Beautiful to watch, beautiful to listen to as my rising fave Emile Mosseri’s score weaves among the lilting hum of insects on the warm air, and beautiful to feel, as the sometimes funny, sometimes bruised nuance of this family’s conflicts and love slips around you. And by the last act, a series of mounting events swept me into the biggest bout of cathartic weeping of any film I’ve seen yet from the 2020 season. I was, simply, bawling. And I think I really needed that right now. If you do too: Minari is finally available to stream in the U.S.

★★★★★

One Night in Miami

In the category ‘high-profile film adaptations of Black American plays released on streaming platforms this winter’, this one was far & away my favorite. Both still feel quite like the stage their stories originated on, but could be said to embrace that, a kind of purity in how they wear their theatrical hearts front and center—it’s going to be about the words and the performances, it says. After my tepid response to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I began to wonder if, taking its cue from the theatre it’s replicating, the director might therefore have an out-sized influence on these sorts of projects. If you take as a given that the bulk of your movie is going to be a handful of characters talking in a room, then it’s all going to come down to how they’re doing that talking. The pacing, the tone, the emotional texture among the actors.

Actor Regina King’s directorial debut was the other of these straight-forward play adaptations, and the living warmth she brings to this philosophical script is an achievement completely worthy of all the acclaim she’s been earning so far this season. One Night In Miami, first performed onstage in 2013, centers on a fictionalized account of what might have been talked about on a real night in 1964 spent between football star Jim Brown, musician Sam Cooke, civil rights leader Malcolm X, and newly minted world heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, just on the cusp of joining Malcolm in the Nation of Islam, where he would take on the name Muhammad Ali. The conversation topics that night, as imagined by writer Kemp Powers: race, politics, economics, and religion, heavy hitters to match even The Greatest.

Powers, who adapted his own stage play for King to put on screen (and wonderfully without preciousness—the first lines from his original play don’t occur until a good 40 minutes in) has said he was using these dialogues to air out silent debates he’d been having with himself about what it meant for him to be a Black artist in mostly white spaces. The result is a wide-ranging dialogue with a bracing depth of complexity and contradiction. Each new point raised is often in conflict with the one prior, and yet it TOO is a good point! This narrative turns its whole audience into Geminis for the night, basically, though feeling out every thread this way, instead of tugging on just one, seems to slightly loosen the Gordian knot by the end, without ever being so foolhardy as to imply it’s been cut.

But while One Night in Miami offers a lot of rhetoric to chew over, where King’s film version really sings (besides the moments when Leslie Odom Jr literally does), is in the interpersonal dynamics of it all. There’s four of them, when we eventually settle into the hotel room where most of the story takes place, and they talk and bond and spar together in a group and in factions within that group, but we also get scenes with just two characters alone, in every combination at some point, where these differences bloom up in how they might behave with one friend but not another, different forms of vulnerability that come out in different arrangements. It’s an idea movie that’s been intertwined with such rich character studies, such a nuanced and tender portrayal of homosocial interaction, and—and this is far from nothing—all among historical luminaries of Black culture. The movie humanizes these larger-than-life figures, without ever losing sight of the fact that it is their fame itself, and the question of what they should be doing with it as Black men in America in the 1960s, that makes up the stuff of their fiercest arguments and most open wounds.

All the compassion and thought of a writer and a director still needs a standout cast to make these conversation plays really shine though, and by jove they got it here. The only actor I knew going in was Leslie Odom Jr, whose talents absolutely translated from Broadway to the screen. Just impeccable casting for Sam Cooke, because whenever they need him to get up onstage and musically command a crowd, it’s Leslie Odom Jr. Yeah, he can do that for you! No problem! Eli Goree, meanwhile, playing the cheerfully cocky young Cassius Clay, is probably the least known of the cast right now, but he did a very fine job in his important balancing role as the baby of the group. It was about a minute into Aldis Hodge’s first scene where something clicked in my brain and I asked, wait, is that handsome clock man? It is! He has a riveting presence. Out of the four, Jim Brown might be the lightest written role on the page, or perhaps just the quietest, but in Hodge’s hands you never forget that he’s in the room, and he absolutely commands his kind yet piercing half of the crown jewel of the two-hander scenes.

His scene partner there is Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. At one point fairly early in this movie, I had to pause it for a moment to just silently process some feelings about Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. Like a containment safety measure, like otherwise I was about to become overwhelmed. Like I needed to calibrate to his levels so I could make it through this. The reason I think I was feeling so much, is because Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is also feeling so much. I don’t know the last time I saw a character that felt more like a prophet, and what I mean is the awkwardness. The genius of this, god it’s perfect. He’s intense and sure and lonely and worried, and he might be going too far but also not far enough, because that’s the curse of a prophet, and damn I loved all the choices of this performance! And when it at last struck me like a physical blow that I knew how this ends for Malcolm, that he’s Malcolm X, all my containment measures fell apart.

But this story here (mostly) takes place on just one night, in Miami, in February 1964. And when it ends, it ends with a cinematic technique, a gesture of editing and close ups, yet the feeling of it is one I recognized from the theatre, these days usually achieved with lighting cues but which I think of as a curtain falling in your heart. And that right there, is a beautiful piece of play adaptation.

★★★★★