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 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 daymare 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 sickens them with this crawling fear they 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 good in the world, 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 missing is a clear 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. To me the bleakness of this slight victory was resoundingly underscored by the brightly bitter 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 its runtime is something I find really fascinating, though I absolutely don’t begrudge anyone just getting a bad stomach ache from it.