Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is one of those women who the world seems destined to be perpetually disappointed in. A once celebrated medical student, Cassie dropped out under dark circumstances and now, aged 30, spends her days working a low-paying job in a cafe while still living with her increasingly impatient parents. Yet, at night, she reveals a very different side of herself, an alter-ego whose agenda is one of revenge. Cassie is determined to right one of modern society’s biggest wrongs.
If you watch the trailer for Promising Young Woman, the feature directorial debut of The Crown actress and Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, you’ll probably think you’re about to see a glossy proto-feminist tale of revenge, something akin to a 21st-century Ms .45 or a post-Weinstein Veronica Mars. The marketing certainly plays up the stylistic verve of such a concept, between the lipstick-heavy posters and the sinister cover of Britney Spears’s ‘Toxic’ on the soundtrack. This movie is very much not that. Indeed, Fennell has set herself a truly gargantuan task with this movie, one that it doesn’t wholly accomplish—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The subgenre of rape and revenge narratives came to prominence in the 1970s, a combination of second-wave feminist fire and the rise of exploitation movies. The plot beats are simple: a character (almost always a woman) is violently assaulted and left for dead, but she survives to exact bloody revenge on those who wronged her. Films like I Spit On Your Grave have proven sharply divisive among feminist critics, and it’s not exactly hard to see why. Often, these movies feel like they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too. First they show the degradation of a woman, then try to turn it into a moment of empowerment by handing her a large gun. Now, when conversations around sexual assault in the entertainment industry have never been more amplified, telling such a story is a task and a half. We know more about how victims of sexual assault process that trauma. We see how these experiences differ across the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. We are painfully aware of how systemic rape culture has rendered justice a laughable fantasy for too many women. Can you even make a rape-revenge fantasy in 2020?
Make no mistake: Promising Young Woman is a rape-revenge fantasy, but it’s also an examination of how utterly futile such a concept truly is. Cassie’s plan is a curious one: she pretends to be black-out drunk, gets picked up by various guys, then, when they try to force themselves on her when she is clearly unable to consent, she reveals herself. If you hoped to see her go full bloodbath during these moments, you’ll be disappointed, but that distinct lack of catharsis is the point. Hers is clearly a bad plan, to end up alone in strange predatory men’s homes unprotected and without anyone knowing where you are. What possible progress can she make with this agenda? As Fennell seems keenly aware of, not much. Singular actions barely make an impact when the entire system is against you.
For Cassie, her crusade is one of pain and self-immolation. She wants justice for a past event that only she seems to care about, but her methods are never going to achieve that. Then again, the law didn’t help her either, a recurring theme of rape-revenge narratives.
Played masterfully by Carey Mulligan, Cassie lives in a fugue state until she corners these men and dominates them with her questions. She is cynical and emotionally shattered, to the point where it doesn’t seem as though she gets any pleasure or satisfaction from her strange plan. That makes watching her ‘takedown’ these guys—including Adam Brody in full ‘nice guy’ mode and a wonderfully slimy Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the living embodiment of That Guy In Your MFA Course—a curiosity to watch unfold. It is appealing to see these men crumble under the weight of their own hypocrisies, paralyzed by a question as simple as ‘What are you doing?’ It’s not enough, though. It can never be enough. Fennell’s script hints that these men probably won’t learn any lessons because of Cassie, a crushing truth that makes Promising Young Woman all the pricklier.
There are tonal issues and a strange ambiguity about its own message, but that seems to be the point. Originally, rape-revenge fantasies like I Spit On Your Grave encouraged a visceral response, one of pure fury that felt at home in the 1970s when mainstream and conservative political pushback against burgeoning feminist movements gained further traction. It was a simple thrill but one that felt potent in the context of a medium where you couldn’t even say the word ‘rape’ for decades. The heroes and villains were clear-cut and, while the ending couldn’t necessarily be classified as ‘happy’, it was gratifying in a near-primal manner.
That can’t be done in something like Promising Young Woman for various reasons, but in large part because audiences are dishearteningly desensitized to depictions of rape after decades of it being the only way hack writers knew how to motivate boring male heroes. Mercifully, Fennell does not actually show any rape on-screen, but her approach is no less of a gut punch. It’s truly stomach-churning to watch these ‘nice guys’ use the same defenses as they get women drunk and try to remove their underwear. The most forceful moments come when Cassie confronts people who she used to be close to and they casually reveal how little they care about vulnerable women’s welfares. A former friend played by Alison Brie proves to be particularly heartless.
Cassie herself is also a woman with serious shades of grey. Her revenge tactics veer between questionable and borderline-monstrous, which shakes the viewer to their core even as they support her ultimate goal. However, the film itself seems less sure about these moments. The score explodes with delight when she smashes up a rude jerk’s car but it deflates in other scenes, seemingly aware of the pointlessness of it all.
Fennell, who has grabbed the opportunity to show off her directorial abilities with both hands, flings everything at the wall: pulpy camera swishes, close-ups that are almost grotesque in detail, pastel-sweet production design that would make Wes Anderson blush with envy, and, of course, that soundtrack. It’s also kind of amazing how many incredible actors turn up for the smallest of roles, including Alfred Molina, Clancy Brown, Laverne Cox, and Jennifer Coolidge.
The undisputed star of the film is Carey Mulligan. An actress more typically associated with English rose parts, playing characters that wilt in the sun or are adored by men who see in her what they want to see, she delves into Cassie with relish. Cassie is less an avenging angel than a desperate martyr, an enigmatic figure by choice who slips into moments of schlubby disinterest as she does an acid-tongued gorgon. It’s through Mulligan that the script’s more muddled moments gain a distinct clarity. There’s an unnerving petulant quality to Cassie that Mulligan brings a savvy emphasis to. In one scene, someone tells her—not unkindly—‘Don’t be a child’ while she is sucking on a juice box, and it’s oddly devastating.
Reviewing Promising Young Woman feels like the writerly equivalent of running on a hamster wheel. It’s a film that invites so many opinions, only to have each of them tied up in knots through the sheer force of its uncertainty. Fennell has lofty goals but she’s also aware that her ambitions with a story like this cannot be given neat conclusions, wrapped up in a bow with clear instructions for the audience on how they should feel about it all. For all of the issues I had with the movie, it was one that I could not stop thinking about. It wormed its way under my skin and I cannot shake it, which is probably the greatest recommendation it can truly receive. Don’t form your opinions on this film through critical osmosis. It’s something you just have to watch and decide for yourself. The fact that there will be no cut-and-dry consensus on Promising Young Woman is a testament to Fennell’s work. If society can’t offer solutions to its epidemic of rape culture then why should she? It’s not as if anyone would ever listen to her.
Promising Young Woman opened in theaters on December 25. It is now available on digital.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Focus Features