Print 2021 Review

“You didn’t think this was the end, did you?”: A Promising Young Woman Review

Written by Gabriela Wilcox
Graphic by Chloe Davison and Rose Dixon-Campbell

This piece was originally published in ‘Memento Mori’, Bossy’s 2021 print edition.

CW: Discussion of sexual assault and harassment, murder, trauma, mental health, misogyny, and suicide

How do we make art out of trauma? Indeed, art seems to thrive on it, but in a world that is oversaturated with depictions of violence, many of us seem to have reached a point where we no longer want to see the things that haunt us at night on the big screen; instead, we opt for fantastical escapism.

As someone who enjoys the escapism of fiction—someone who, as vacuous as it may sound, generally avoids hard-hitting and confrontational movies—I was scared to watch Promising Young Woman. I don’t think I even watched the trailer. I did, however, know it was going to be an excellent movie (it had those vibes). When the credits rolled, I was speechless. I also distinctly remember proclaiming that, while it was one of the best movies I’d ever seen, I didn’t believe I would ever be able to watch it again. Suffice to say, after having watched the film several times, I was proven wrong—but it wasn’t until my third viewing that I could see the forest for the trees and began to recognise Promising Young Woman’s faults (though they are limited in comparison to its merits).

I: Synopsis

A play on the phrase ‘promising young man’—most notably used by the defence during Chanel Miller’s sexual assault trial—Promising Young Woman is a tongue-in-cheek response to the institutions that are quick to defend men and quicker to not believe women. The film follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan) as she repeatedly tricks men into believing she is drunk enough to be ‘asking for it’ and confronting them when they attempt to assault her. As the movie progresses, we learn that she is motivated by the assault of her childhood best friend, Nina, who dropped out of medical school and is implied to have killed herself in the aftermath. In addition to her nightly perp hunts, Cassie has begun to work her way through a tally of revenge on those who wronged Nina. Eventually, Cassie opens herself up to her ex-classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham), and for a moment, seems to no longer be trapped in a cycle of revenge. However, the glass shatters when she learns of Ryan’s involvement in Nina’s assault.

II: RR films

An oversimplified understanding of the ‘female gaze’ and the ‘male gaze’ has overtaken filmic discourse: over time, the terms have become buzzwords that create a dichotomous categorisation based almost exclusively on whether or not the women being portrayed are over-sexualised. However, despite the bastardisation of these concepts, they are incredibly useful when comparing movies like Promising Young Woman to many other exploitative films that are categorised as ‘R*pe Revenge Films’—RR films (e.g., I Spit on Your Grave, The Virgin Spring).

One of the key differences between typical RR films and Promising Young Woman—in absolutely essential terms—is director Emerald Fennell. More specifically, it’s Fennell’s decision to exclude the depiction of Nina’s assault from the film’s visual narrative. There is something incredibly grimy about explicit depictions of sexual assault in RR films. These scenes—which are often conceptualised by men—are gratuitous and sadistic, not only in the decision to include the scenes themselves, but in the way they are typically depicted. There is no narrative reasoning for such scenes, and we are reminded of that in the emotional response that we, as audience members, have by viewing the event and its subsequent consequences through Cassie’s eyes. We don’t need depictions of sexual assault to empathise.

Categorically, however, this movie is an RR film. Superficially—at least, according to Letterboxd—it also appears to fit into the colloquial ‘Good for Her Cinematic Universe’, but every decision made in this movie, by Fennell and everyone involved, actively attacks and subverts these categories. Indeed, it is an oversimplification of both Fennell’s writing and Mulligan’s acting to place this film in the ‘Good for Her’ category because unequivocally, it is not good for her.

III: Character

The movie’s strong point in my opinion is the characters, particularly the lead. Something that may surprise people is that in some ways, I despise Cassie. Her revenge on Madison (Alison Brie) is far from moral—Cassie manufactures the very trauma that ultimately killed Nina—but I don’t need to like Cassie to be rooting for her, and it’s easy to be led away from her wrongdoings by getting caught up in the narrative. At the point in the story where we are presented with the heavy-handed symbolism of Cassie standing in front of a makeshift halo, we are willing to forget the awful things she’s done; after all, she’s giving up on her revenge and moving on. There is nothing we want more than a happy ending for Cassie—something that makes the ending an even more significant blow. Cassie’s duality breaks through a lot of the other two-dimensional aspects of this film—such as the conventional narrative structure and the colour palette. Having the main character do problematic shit further subverts the female revenge fantasy: we aren’t always thinking ‘good for her’.

In many other reviews of Promising Young Woman, critics have expressed their confusion or surprise at the film’s decision to cast Carey Mulligan in a role that one might associate with an actor like Margot Robbie. While I think that Mulligan perhaps deserves more credit than given to her in this case, there is still a point to be made on the somewhat misleading nature of the marketing for this film. Our protagonist isn’t a femme fatale, but based on the hype surrounding this movie, much of the audience may have developed an expectation that was not necessarily fulfilled. More specifically, the empowering aspects of this movie were in some ways dampened by the more heavy-hitting realities depicted, as well as the overshadowing negative toll that Cassie’s vigilante ventures take on her. It is Cassie’s vulnerability, and the nuanced examination of trauma that her character provides, that ultimately make Mulligan the perfect fit for the role, because despite the hype, Cassie is not an empowering character. Additionally, while her vigilante ventures could be considered empowering, these scenes lack authenticity and play into a neat narrative that doesn’t really make sense. In some ways, it is deeply discomforting to watch as Cassie manages to walk away from predators unscathed after ‘teaching them a lesson’. In what reality do predators respond calmly to a woman teaching them the error of their ways? It’s an odd choice on Fennell’s part, and one I don’t necessarily agree with. I understand that there was a clear decision for Cassie’s character to avoid crossing the line into violence towards these men, but I would have personally preferred to see Cassie play into empowering revenge tropes by murdering the perpetrators than watch her gaslight Madison. Why was the worst crime that Cassie committed one that was targeted at a woman? Still, these choices imbue Cassie with a nuance that subverts the tradition dictating that a protagonist should be perfect.

One of my favourite scenes in this movie is when Cassie shows up on the doorstep of Nina’s mother’s house. It’s a bittersweet moment, where we as the audience are forced to step out of our ‘girlbossification’ of Cassie to realise how trapped she is in her trauma, and how her revenge plots are doing nothing to help her—or anyone—move on. The scene perfectly captures Cassie’s true character when Nina’s mother tells her, “don’t be such a child”. Her entire childhood and formative years were wrapped up in a person now gone, so just as Nina was unable to grow, so too is Cassie. Whilst we are spoon-fed this fact through the bubblegum colour palette, costumes, and the fact that Cassie still lives at home, it is not until this moment that it is slapped in our faces.

Through Cassie’s relationship with Ryan, we are introduced to the free Cassie who has (seemingly) broken out of the unhealthy cycle, able to move on. But that’s not how trauma works, and Emerald Fennell knows this, so the revelation that the source of her freedom (Ryan) had a role in the very thing that kept her trapped ultimately forces her to revert. While the specific blow of Ryan’s complacency was surprising, the film’s structure created some predictability—we knew that the penny was going to drop. The montage of Cassie and Ryan’s relationship was simply too happy and too early on in the movie for the audience to believe this was the cinematic happy ending.

IIII: Final Act

Act III opens with a violin cover of Britney Spear’s ‘Toxic’ and Cassie in your stereotypical sexy nurse outfit: two elements that would have been interesting or dramatic if they hadn’t both been heavily featured in promotional material. The audience is ready for a scene of girlboss revenge and a satisfying ending—but unexpectedly, the final arc of Cassie’s revenge plot results in the brutal murder of our main character in real time. So now Fennell doesn’t hold back. I’m still not sure how I feel about this choice. It was certainly an effective tool at forcing the audience to confront the tragedy of this scene, and one that was executed brilliantly at that. However, for the most violent scene of the film to be an act of violence against a woman is a contradiction of Fennell’s active exclusion of brutality up until this point. So rarely in cinema do we see the protagonist die, and in such a devastating way. I kept thinking she was faking it and that she would ultimately win the struggle through movie magic. Ultimately, no matter how realistic this scene may be, the inclusion of this death and the potentially triggering nature of its depiction isn’t an inclusion that fits neatly into what we expect from a movie ending. Suffice to say, it was unexpected.

Fennell originally intended for the movie to end there—a lesson that we don’t always get what we want and a reminder that this would be the likely outcome in reality. Thankfully, in the interest of the audience’s morale, an epilogue was added and we are granted a satisfying ending. The fantastical ending, whilst unrealistic, does ring true in that Cassie’s death and her subsequent plan was perhaps the only way to get the perpetrators to face the consequences. It was a satisfying ending, and I am glad that the movie didn’t end immediately after Cassie’s death; however, this final act didn’t necessarily feel consistent with the rest of the film. It is ironic that despite Cassie’s rightful mistrust of the institutions that failed Nina, she ultimately relies on those very institutions to deal the final blow to her murderers. This felt like a decision tied to studio influence, and I wish that the film had instead explored methods of revenge that were consistent with the protagonist’s ideals.

IIII: Conclusion

Promising Young Woman isn’t perfect, and its flaws could be picked apart if necessary, but it’s pretty damn close. Ultimately, I loved this movie. The soundtrack, with the likes of Paris Hilton and Charli XCX, creates an atmosphere of childish glee and black-and-white thinking, which cleverly reflects its lead. Carey Mulligan, armed with her experience of playing wholesome characters, surprises us with a nuanced character that is somehow loveable, pitiable, and unlikeable at the same time. Bo Burnham puts the nice guy into ‘nice guys’, embracing the likeability of his public persona to surprise us with the reveal of his character’s true nature. All in all, the actors involved, from Jennifer Coolidge to Max Greenfield and Laverne Fox, as well as a plethora of other notable names, effectively create Cassie’s world and highlight the importance of character actors by leaning into tropes that I believe benefit the overall feel of the movie. Underpinning the performances of the actors is the cinematography, set design, and costumes that masterfully coat the film’s exterior in a sweet shell, creating an atmosphere both familiar and unique to this movie. Packed with imagery, even a frame-by-frame analysis would find it difficult to capture this film in its entirety.  Despite the inconsistencies and contradictions of the narrative, I personally like to focus more on the positives in films, and based on those alone, I give Promising Young Woman a five out of five. It’s up to you to ignore my inability to rate movies I loved lower than that and form your own—probably more logical—opinions. 

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