Nearly a year ago, I saw the trailer for Promising Young Woman and it is one of the best movie trailers I have ever seen in my life. Which made the pandemic delayed release of this film all the harder to stomach.
Fortunately, this film delivers on the much overdue wait. I think it should win or at least be nominated for a whole lot of awards, and both me and my wife are aligned in saying it is one of the best films we’ve seen in a long time. Although reactions seem to be polarized, I don’t think anyone could argue against it being a very well-made film. It plays with various genres using a highly engaging, highly stylized bubble gum pop aesthetic.
Also a content warning and a heads up: this film does deal with rape and the systems that collude with and support rapists at the expense of survivors. I am not a survivor, and I only say that because I want to be transparent that I am not bringing that lens to this film.
This is a film that is hard to talk about without spoilers, so please please please go watch it the honest way before reading the rest of this.
The movie shows us a realistic depiction of what one person’s fight against the systems that keep rape culture in place would look like. I love that Promising Young Woman helps us derive pleasure from Cassie’s vengeance without making her an invincible badass. Despite the gorgeous, bubble gum style elements (especially when it dips into rom-com territory), the narrative itself stays grounded in reality. There are plenty of rape revenge films that revolve around the survivor taking brutal, violent vengeance against the perpetrator(s). For that type of catharsis, I can always rewatch Revenge.
Though I would have loved to see Cassie carve Nina’s name into Al, it also wouldn’t feel congruous with the rest of the film. Cassie is always methodical, and physically attacking Al feels more similar her road rage incident where she loses control for a moment. For the most part, Cassie does not use violence against her targets. Instead, she engages with people psychologically, often turning their complicitness in Nina’s demise against them.
Promising Young Woman excels in highlighting the flawed arguments different people use to keep rape culture in place. When Cassie confronts Dean Walker, Walker states that people are “innocent till proven guilty”, and obviously means Al is innocent till proven guilty. But the same basic concept is never used to give Nina the benefit of the doubt. Much like “stand your ground” only applied to George Zimmerman for stalking Trayvon Martin, and not to Martin for defending himself from an armed adult man pursuing him. Insisting on Al’s innocence is insisting on Nina’s guilt in fabricating a lie after all.
We also get Alison Brie’s character Madison, who accused Nina of “crying wolf” in order to keep her status within the in crowd at school. Madison exhibits awareness of the pressure patriarchy places on society, even commenting that all guys really want eventually is a “good girl” in a line that reminded me of Amy’s “cool girl” monologue in Gone Girl, but she chose not to believe Nina despite being close friends. Despite the fact she too slept around and partied, she points to Nina sleeping around and partying as a reason not to believe her. Regarding her own party days, she comments that what her husband doesn’t know “can’t hurt him”, something that gets twisted on her when she wakes up in a hotel room with a strange man and no recollection of what she did.
I love that this film deals with its subject and characters without feeling preachy or painting people as a binary of good or bad. The different characters have different degrees of culpability in what happened to Nina, and some of them like Ryan have gone on to be positive, charming people and forces in the world. Cassie is not a white knight or infallible hero, and though we cheer her on we also know she’s unhealthily subsumed in grief and rage. Even Nina’s mom criticizes Cassie for not moving on as we can reasonably presume Nina would have wanted her to do.
Instead the film shows us that rape culture, like systemic racism, is so deeply baked into our culture it taints even the people we want to think better of like Ryan. And it all points to an overwhelming resistance people display when being asked to hold themselves accountable for their transgressions and roles in these systems. Cassie shows mercy to people who repent for what they did in destroying Nina, but most refuse to volunteer any sense of repentance or responsibility, and almost all highlight all the good Al has done as a way of justifying their complicitness. This is even apparent in Ryan and Cassie’s final conversation. He first tries to excuse the tape by stating “we were just kids” before begging for forgiveness and asking for Cassie to say he’s a good person, all without ever admitting what he needs forgiveness for. When Cassie won’t grant forgiveness without acknowledgement, Ryan bitterly reminds her that she is a “failure” who will ruin two doctors if she releases the tape.
The Reality of That Ending
I knew going into this movie that people found the ending to be very polarizing, but I managed to avoid learning why they felt it was polarizing. It set me up to be cringing the entire movie in anticipation of being let down instead of fully enjoying watching Cassie’s revenge.
Despite the fact my defenses were already up, it still didn’t prepare me for watching her get smothered to death by Al (though I started to become increasingly afraid as soon as I saw those cheap novelty handcuffs). It is a brutal two and a half minutes (according to writer/director Emerald Fennell she inquired how long it would take to smother someone and this was based on the answer she received from a retired cop). In a horror movie, the victim would be the one handcuffed but would manage to break free to try and save themselves. With this movie, we were rooting for the avenging captor, and it is incredibly shocking and upsetting to see the situation flip on her.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do to effectively channel the rage and frustration the scene left me with, so the actual ending revealing Cassie’s contingency plan provides a much-needed catharsis…at least at first it did. Unfortunately the more I thought about it the more I became concerned about what would really happen after the credits roll and it seemed Cassie had achieved victory even at the cost of her life (or perhaps because of it…more on that too).
The movie shows us all the ways society failed Nina after she was raped, and it isn’t hard to believe that Al will be protected from repercussions once again. We see that the male detective investigating Cassie’s disappearance already doubted her mental state after a single off-hand comment made by her father. He didn’t even seem to suspect Ryan was involved with her disappearance even though they broke up the day before she disappeared. I’m no true crime expert but even I know it is usually the boyfriend or husband.
I worry that the tape of Nina’s rape would fall outside the statute of limitations, and that Al would plead self-defense in murdering Cassie. She clearly came to his bachelor party under false pretenses with the intent to harm him, and presumably there would still be evidence from the bottle she used that she drugged the other party guests. Al would once again be given the benefit of the doubt by society and the legal system if what we have seen throughout the entire movie and our lives is any indication.
There is the sliver of hope that Alfred Molina’s repentant defense attorney Jordan would be able to use his desire for redemption to make Al, Joe, and their accomplices finally pay for their crimes, so at least there’s that. And there is an argument to be made that even if Al doesn’t face legal repercussions, his life will be ruined thanks to Cassie’s actions. After all, to explain why a woman was hell bent on coming after him would also be to explain her reasoning to which there is video evidence.
No matter what, I choose to believe Cassie succeeded in getting her final tick mark. If nothing else, she has succeeded in making “every guy’s worst nightmare” come true for Al.
Did Cassie Plan to Die?
I don’t think so, but I think there is a solid argument to be made either way. It was certainly something she prepared for as evident from the her scheduled text messages to Ryan, and sending instructions and the phone with the video of Nina’s rape to Jordan.
After learning Ryan was also complicit in Nina’s rape and seeing him refuse to take responsibility for his role, her one sense of hope for a different life outside all consuming grief and vengeance was shattered. As she told Gail earlier in the movie, “if I wanted a boyfriend and a yoga class and a house and kids and a job my mom could brag about I’d have done it…it would take me ten minutes.” Immediately after this Ryan walks into the coffee shop and asks her on a date. Just as quickly, hearing Ryan’s voice on the video of Nina’s rape destroys that other possibility again, and destroys her trust in the one person she allowed herself to be vulnerable with. So she is in an incredibly vulnerable state when making her plan to attack Al.
It could easily be interpreted her mission of revenge against Al is a suicide mission. Her reaction to getting to the point she can attack him with a scalpel does seem to come with an element of surprise that she was able to get that far into a more haphazard and violent part of her revenge plan. She also uses incredibly flimsy novelty handcuffs for a situation that could easily get out of hand.
I think the greatest argument to be made that she intended to die is because murder would be a more definitive crime for Al to accused of. There is no he said/she said in this case. I outlined my concerns with the ending in the section before this, but it would ensure a statute of limitations wouldn’t allow him to get away on a technicality for raping Nina.
But I also think that though her life is consumed with guilt and vengeance, she would have still continued her one person mission to confront predatory men. Again as she told Gail, she could have had a more traditionally accomplished life if she wanted it, but she chose to dedicate her life to revenge. At the same time, Al represented the ultimate target of that desire for revenge, and so it is hard to know how finally making him pay would impact her grief.
- This would be an excellent double feature with Gone Girl. I also thought of Revenge and even Assassination Nation while watching this
- Al is an anesthesiologist and his fiancee Anastasia and I just feel like it is not a coincidence that those words have a similar sound in order to show how flat and predictable he is
- Max Greenfield was perfectly cast as Joe
This is an excellent movie about a terribly upsetting but important topic. I have seen very few rape revenge movies just given how upsetting the subject matter is, but I enjoyed this and Revenge. I know this is mostly a horror film blog, but I couldn’t get this movie off my mind and wanted to share some initial analysis. I look forward to continue to read discourse about this movie, and appreciate how much it has made me think.