TW: Rape and Sexual Assault
If it hasn’t been made abundantly clear from its marketing plan, Promising Young Woman was not made to be willfully loved by those bold enough to view it. Its different dimensions, all containing grim entertainment and cultural education, contribute to one sole objective: to “jolt us awake”. With that said, it’s a guarantee that hordes of viewers will attack the film’s grotesque and uneasy nature, due in equal parts to the distress they feel and to their unwillingness to accept the unjust societal structures analyzed within the film. The entire plotline focuses on the vast distinction of love, sex, and power between members of society (in this case men and women), and effortlessly shines a light on the horrid nuances of these injustices for the world to see. What could have easily been a standard dissection of misogyny ends up becoming a gripping cautionary tale that grabs centuries-old rhetoric and turns it on its head, all on the account of writer-director-producer Emerald Fennell in her directorial debut. If the jolt from Promising Young Woman teaches the viewer anything, it’s that the discussion on how society distinguishes its treatment between sexual assault survivors and those who perpetuate rape culture is far from over: the party’s actually just beginning.
The film, which follows a terrific Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, a former med school student who left under unusual circumstances and now spends her nights prowling clubs for all sorts of “good guys”, gives a chilling and all-too-real look into the lives of assault survivors and those supporting them. While Cassie isn’t confirmed to be a survivor herself, she cared for her childhood best friend Nina after her assault all the way up until her assumed-to-be suicide, and her experiences with trauma as a supporter are much more holistic than the audience might expect. Almost every piece of promotion for Promising Young Woman paints the film as a sugary and shocking rape-revenge film, even though it cleverly subverts tired tropes and allows the sum of its parts to be much more lively, comedic, and grueling than other films within the subgenre. Emulating everything from famous Greek tragedies to standard 90s rom coms, this film has it all: unresolved grief and guilt from the entire cast, Mulligan as a woman hellbent on receiving justice through divine moments of reckoning, and even a pharmacy date scene soundtracked to all 3 minutes and 55 seconds of Paris Hilton’s pop masterpiece “Stars Are Blind” (which is arguably the best scene in the whole film, of course). While these contrasting elements to the typical thriller mold do result in some jarring tonal shifts, the all-encompassing look into Cassie’s life helps bring nuance to the lives of real-life survivors who are often painted solely as “surviving” after their assault. Ultimately aiming to craft a movie that’s memorable, Fennell drives home the sentiment that the most memorable moments in one’s life can be the most heartful and the most heartless out of all of them and accomplishes this in a beautifully evocative manner that will hardly be forgotten for years to come.
While chronicling just a fragment of how love, friendship, and societal interaction is impacted for those affected by previous trauma, Promising Young Woman also focuses on how an individual’s identity can be suffocated, wiped away, and sometimes toxically rebuilt in the aftermath of it all. Obviously channeling this study of behavior into Cassie, Fennell’s dissection of her backstory contains some of the most intentional decisions within the movie, whose divisiveness will be noted by viewers everywhere. After a surface-level analyzation into Cassie’s character, there are seldom moments where we get a true glimpse into her; she’s a chameleon who changes with each man she ensnares and she’s quite secluded in the presence of those she loves. It’s borderline infuriating knowing that there is no “true” Cassie to be found within the film, prompting viewers to write it off as lazy writing. But in a way, there’s more truth in Cassie’s often cold and cunning exterior than if she had been given an extensive background with intricate motivations; vengeance is motivation enough for her.
Because of the horrid actions of Alexander Monroe, the man who abused Nina, there is no “before Nina” for Cassie: what’s left for the viewer to see is the painful, residual aftermath of a personality as it gets slowly stolen as the days go by. The emotional entrapment of Alexander’s disturbing actions is evidently passed from Nina to Cassie, and its gut-wrenching to witness the theft of a woman’s identity brought upon by a man who wouldn’t look twice if he passed her on the street. As grim as that sounds, Promising Young Woman still unabashedly takes it a step further in its storytelling and focuses some of its attention on these same kind of men, in order to better understand their lives within a society built to protect them without dissent. Almost every interaction with a man (except for the beautiful, comedic tenderness that Bo Burnham brings to the table) exudes either a sheer amount of control and superiority or an outlandish burst of man-child energy. Blue-collar men shouting expletives at Cassie one minute just to regress into a toddler-like crying fit after some minor push-back is truthful and comedic storytelling at its finest, but Cassie’s dark, intoxicated act works wonders to truly show how out-of-pocket their behavior is. They throw around their sick variations of “she’s asking for it” until they’re the ones truly asking for it; they are the ones begging for the long-awaited repercussions of their actions.
Obviously, it goes without saying that Mulligan’s performance is something to marvel at: her restrain and rage is devilishly delightful to watch, and she effortlessly pulls-off Cassie’s pre-calculated nature with ease. It’s utterly hypnotizing watching Mulligan’s strength as she balances the emotional tolls placed on sexual assault survivors and supporters, including male negligence, familial opposition, newfound love, and even victim-blaming from fellow women. As a woman increasingly caught in the crosshairs of vengeance and love, dwelling and forgiveness, and all the other contradictions that love creates when mixed with trauma, Cassie’s exterior can be cheaply discounted to being “cold”, but Mulligan truly brings incredible depth to the character of Cassie, which in turn becomes the anchor holding down this glittery whirlwind of a film.
As an amalgamation of rape-revenge, romantic comedy, and standard thriller films, Promising Young Woman is another boundary-pushing endeavor expanding the conversation of society’s upholding of rape culture tenets. With Fennell at the wheel and Mulligan in the front passenger seat, every aspect and hairpin twist within the film is so methodically thought out that it will make well-traveled thriller enthusiasts question the film’s every turn. There’s no denying that this film will have its dissenters, due in part to its stark tonal shifts and uneven plot structure, but it’s difficult not to at least appreciate a film done with this level of authenticity and empathy. With the determination and (un)divine intervention to the likes of Joan of Arc, Cassie Thomas’ bold and unsettling ultimatum for the men of the world will help solidify this film’s spot in culture and discussions for years to come. Make no mistake, Promising Young Woman will become a modern feminist staple over time, thanks to the deranged autonomy shown on-screen as well as the delightful freedom taking place behind the camera.