Surviving ‘Promising Young Woman’

February 12, 2021

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers.

A woman is parked in an intersection. A pick-up truck pulls up next to her—inside, a man screams at her to move. She steps out calmly and takes a tire iron to his windshield as a chorus of violins surge. In that moment Cassie (Carrie Mulligan) shows us what “Promising Young Woman” does best: rage.

We meet Cassie, seemingly drunk and in a shitty club—part of her nightly routine of hunting the supposed “nice guy,” who inevitably picks her up and attempts to assault her. In the encounters we see, Cassie is in complete control—inspiring fear in the uninspiring author Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and business-bro Jerry (Adam Brody). 

These scenes represent how “Promising Young Woman” was marketed: as a rape-revenge thriller about a woman hunting sexual predators. The trailer promises a “delicious new take on revenge,” but Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut is the opposite of what its previews implied. Instead of the satisfying, violent ends the viewer expects to befall these men, the marketing obscured the film’s real focus: an exploration of Cassie’s rage and its consequences. 

Cassie, a coffee shop employee and med-school drop out, is content to live with her parents and enact her nightly revenge rather than move out or move on. But when Cassie meets her old classmate and new love interest Ryan (Bo Burnham), she’s reminded of an undisclosed trauma that occurred at her alma mater. That’s where her best friend, Nina Fisher, was raped—leading her to commit suicide. Cassie sets out to punish everyone who brushed off Nina’s rape, like her former classmate Madison (Allison Brie) and her former medical school’s Dean Walker (Connie Britton).

Cassie’s punishments are formed in the image of male violence. She gaslights Madison into believing she may have been raped and convinces Walker that her daughter is about to be. When Cassie confronts her, Walker claims these boys are innocent until proven guilty. But when Cassie says she’s dropped the Dean’s daughter off in a dorm room of college-aged boys, presumed innocence flies out the window. Until the Dean learns her daughter is safe, the audience is gaslit right along with her. 

Cassie, consequently, is suspect. She’s not targeting sexual predators—instead she appears to force the same violence Nina experienced onto these women. Cassie breaks from the symbol of female revenge, becoming something twisted and strange. Her manipulative violence feels out of proportion and distant from the source of her pain and the true villain: Nina’s rapist, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell).

Cassie’s confrontation with Walker drives home “Promising Young Woman’s” point: that it is all men. Cassie’s distrust of the men that populate shitty bars, the Dean’s distrust of her own students, is one learned by experience. They presume guilt not for the actions of the few but for the actions of the many. And sadly, for the complicitness of the other. And Ryan is no exception.

Cassie falls for Ryan, and we fall right alongside her. Playing the lanky pediatrician, Burnham emanates the awkward and casually kind energy he’s known for in his stand up comedy. His loveable nature is what makes his betrayal feel like a shotgun to the stomach. Nina’s rape was taped, and Ryan was there, laughing. Ryan is just as guilty as the rest, reaffirming the lie of the “nice guy” and putting Cassie on her final, deadly mission. 

In disguise as a stripper at Al’s bachelor party, Cassie gets Al alone and handcuffed to a bed. As punishment, she’s going to carve Nina’s name into his body. Nina will be the one that’s remembered, not Al. 

The movie, however, forgets Nina along with its villains. She’s a ghost, never speaking for herself. Her absence severs the film from a survivor narrative, to the point where the initial trailers present an entirely different movie. It’s drawn justified criticism from survivors of sexual assault, for both failing to represent or empower survivors. 

In its end, “Promising Young Woman” disappoints. Al breaks free, smothering Cassie with a pillow in an agonizingly long, nauseating scene. Cassie has been in control in every moment until now, when, arms flailing, Al suffocates her. Her sudden loss feels unbelievable. 

But at Al’s wedding, the cavalry arrives. As Cassie’s killers are dragged away to the tune of “Angel of the Morning,” Cassie sends Ryan one last (pre-scheduled) message: “Enjoy the wedding. Love, Cassie & Nina ;)” 

What we remember is not Cassie’s winking message, but her brutal, tragic death at the hands of Al Monroe. While the triumphant music and quick arrests would have the viewer believe otherwise, Cassie’s death is not a victory. It’s impossible not to recall Cassie’s legs kicking under the pillow as Al smothers her, screaming at her to stop moving in a scene that feels excessive at best and exploitative at worst. The “triumphant” ending feels dishonest to Cassie’s demise, and a controversial conclusion for film reviewers. 

Throughout, Mulligan has crafted a compelling character built on the fractured edges of Cassie’s pain and deadly mission, managing to hold both until her death—an act presented as solely heroic martyrdom. The ending expects the viewer to flatten Cassie into a symbol of vengeance, to forget her personhood in favor of plot. She’s no longer Cassie, she’s a sacrifice for justice, but after spending an hour in her grief, we are unable to abandon her now. 

In death, we’re left with the living spirit of her rage. That anger is in part due to the film’s success Mulligan’s jaw-dropping performance, but also “Promising Young Woman’s” failings in presenting Cassie’s death as somehow, simultaneously, victorious. Though obviously and painfully unintended, the film’s ending results in the same feeling Mulligan so excellently portrays throughout: rage against male violence.

It’s a common feeling. You’re 14 and getting cat-called on your way to junior prom, you’re 18 and pushing off groping hands, you’re 22 and finished watching this movie, fists clenched and ready to put a hole in the drywall. That rage is everywhere. Where “Promising Young Woman” fails, however, is presenting a death borne out of that anger as victory rather than tragedy.

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