By Mique Watson
**This piece contains spoilers for the end of “Promising Young Woman.” If you have not seen the film, you may want to check out this piece afterwards.**
“Promising Young Woman” (2020) premiered last year at the Sundance film festival. It debuted with a whopping 99% approval rating on the Tomatometer, and was associated with much anticipation. In reality, this was one of the most polarizing films the festival has seen in recent memory. The first 100 minutes is seemingly a candy-colored revenge thriller (I was reminded of such films like Birds of Prey); the final 10 minutes, however, will have your jaw on the floor. Your reaction will likely vacillate between confusion and despondency. The absolute moment of promised catharsis is irrevocably stolen. This stolen moment, however, makes Promising Young Woman one of the boldest, and most effective films I’ve ever seen.
“Hey, I said what are you doing”, Carry Mulligan says with her icy, deadpan voice; disgusted, perpetually, by every breathing thing around her. This line is delivered in the middle of a rather odd situation. You see, Mulligan plays Cassandra Thomas, a woman in her 30’s whose hobbies include mundane things like: working in a coffee shop, recreating makeup tutorials on YouTube, and making men shit themselves (figuratively, as far as we know).
I should probably expound a bit on that last one. You see, after Cassandra concludes applying the perfect “blowjob lips” (the YouTube tutorial she was following said it, not me!), she hits the town–sober. She fakes being drunk, only for some bloke to come over, under the pretext of “helping”, and lead her back to his house. Naturally, like kabuki theater, we learn that the men–no matter how nice they assert they are–have only one intention: to take advantage of her. Just as they’re about to have their way; she drops the act. Upon realizing she is actually sober, they turn into “nice guys” again.
Every scene in this film is subversive; every scene undercuts genre tropes and images. The film opens up with a remix of Charli XCX’s “Boys”, and we see men dancing–in slow-mo, cameras crawling up their bodies, zoomed into their drunken faces. Normally, this would be scantily clad, able-bodied women; though director Emerald Fennell expertly highlights how ridiculous either situation is. Like what you see, boys? Now you know how we women feel having to sit through this sexist crap!
As the film unfurls, we learn the specifics behind Cassandra’s ritual. She has been doing this as a coping mechanism of sorts after her friend Nina Fisher had taken her own life. Nina, we learn, had been raped at a drunken college party. The rape was filmed. It had taken place in front of an audience of a room full of people. It had also apparently been reported, yet both the school and Nina’s peers sided with the perpetrator. Cassandra, the most–ehem–promising student, was Nina’s childhood friend. She dropped out with Nina to take care of her. Unfortunately, Nina succumbed to her trauma and took her own life.
Cassandra bumps into an old acquaintance, Ryan (Bo Burnham) from medical school. Ryan unwittingly divulges that Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), Nina’s rapist, has resurfaces and is engaged. This prompts Cassandra to seek out, and reunite with various people who helped cover up for Al (among which are cameos from Allison Brie and Connie Britton).
Disappointingly, both men and women are proven to be complacent in this. This film isn’t a condemnation of all men. As a matter of fact, the one man who seems genuinely remorseful–Al’s lawyer (a fantastic Alfred Molina), is spared from Cassandra’s scorn. The film asserts that culture, as a whole, has gotten too comfortable with being complicit in these situations. Collectively, we all must evaluate how we respond to cases like these, Fennell posits.
Throughout the entire runtime, we see the world from Cassie’s subjective point of view. We stand alongside her through her highs and lows; we wish–just like she does–that vengeance will be exacted upon Nina’s rapist. Yet, our expectations and preconceived notions that we’ve been trained to anticipate–given the “genre” we’re led to believe this film is–are upended in the darkest, most disturbing way.
Remember the last 10 minutes I alluded to? Here’s what happens: the film’s climax sees Cassandra dressing up as a stripper and showing up to Al Monroe’s bachelor party. She drugs all of Al’s friends, and leads Al to the bedroom. Once there, she handcuffs him to the bed, and reveals her identity. She then straddles him as he frantically begs for mercy–she responds by threatening to mutilate him with her inventory of medical scalpels. Normally, this would play out like a standard revenge-thriller and he’d likely have the word “rapist pig” carved onto his chest. Not here. Al ends up breaking loose, and smothering Cassandra with a pillow, killing her. I’ll give you a minute to pick your jaw up from the floor.
A fruitless investigation reveals that Cassandra’s remains were never found–apparently Al and a friend had cremated her. Fennell leaves room for some catharsis, though, when we find out that Cassandra had had a contingency plan this entire time. It turns out that she had mailed the phone with Nina’s video to Al’s lawyer–who had previously tried to repent. The film ends with Al being ceremoniously arrested at his own wedding.
Yet, during this cathartic moment, the feeling of despondency and denial remains. We can’t feel fully sated knowing that Cassandra was unable to personally see the success of her vengeance. Fennell seems to be arguing that this ending was inevitable. Had Cassandra succeeded in carving Al up, she would’ve been arrested; thus, reinforcing the narrative that Al was the real “victim”. Her final act of vengeance, done on behalf of Nina, reinforces Al’s role as the perpetrator. Yet, her contingency plan prevented him from walking away a free man this time. Cassandra not only accepted the risk, she anticipated it. Sad as it is, the film was never meant to be a revenge-fantasy. Fennell argues that, in real life, women’s realities are more like Cassie’s than what we see in the movies.
Real life isn’t Angelina Jolie kicking ass and taking names, Uma Thurman slicing and dicing in a yellow jumpsuit, and Charlize Theron cracking skulls with 80’s music blaring in the background. This film was never meant to be a fantasy; it chose harsh reality over escapism. Our reaction to the harsh reality the film confronts us with proves the film’s point, and forces us to face ourselves and look to assess our own biases and preconceived notions. It’s bloody fantastic, and ingenious.