Promising Young Woman is not the feminist revenge fantasy I wanted, but it’s the one society deserves
Warning: This review contains major spoilers
In a year filled with pushed back theatrical releases and surprise straight to streaming titles, Promising Young Woman was a breath of fresh air, releasing in the US at the very end of 2020.
Written, directed and produced by Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman is her feature directorial debut. Also an actress, Fennell currently stars as Camilla Parker Bowles on Netflix’s The Crown. In this A+ debut, Fennell stays behind the camera and lets its star, Carey Mulligan, carry the dark comedy revenge thriller.
Mulligan stars as Cassie, a 30-year-old woman who dropped out of medical school after the rape and suicide of her best friend, Nina. Realizing that the legal system failed as Nina’s rapist roams free and thrives, Cassie habitually frequents bars pretending to be intoxicated, waits for men to take advantage of her, and turns the tables on them in an attempt to terrify them into changing their predatory ways. When she runs into an old acquaintance from medical school (played by Bo Burnham), the fire inside her is reignited stronger than ever. She goes down the list of those she finds most responsible for the crime and exacts revenge.
One of the smartest things about the casting of this film is that the men who attempt to take advantage of Cassie are played by actors who previously portrayed incredibly likable characters. The casting reminds me of a quote I once heard: “Why does everyone know someone who’s been raped, but no one ever seems to know a rapist?”
Cassie’s revenge isn’t exclusive to sleazy men, it also includes the women who turned a blind eye to protect a young man’s future over another woman’s justice (expertly played by Alison Brie and Connie Britton, respectively), and notably a lawyer who’s the only character who seems genuinely tormented by the part he played in Nina’s trauma. Alfred Molina’s performance as the defense lawyer haunted by his actions is second only to Mulligan’s.
When Cassie comes across a video of Nina’s assault and realizes that the man she’s dating was present, she uses the information to find out where Nina’s rapist’s (Al, played by Chris Lowell) bachelor party is being held. While posing as a stripper, she crashes the bachelor party and handcuffs Al to the bed, tells him she drugged all the other men at the party, and attempts to carve Nina’s name into his chest as punishment. He overpowers Cassie and in a chilling AF scene, kills her by smothering her with a pillow. Al spends the night next to Cassie’s body, still partially handcuffed to the bed, until his best man (played by Max Greenfield) wakes up and, after rationalizing that Al did “nothing wrong,” helps Al dispose of and burn Cassie’s body.
In the final scene of Promising Young Woman, we see Al marrying his picture perfect fiancé at a posh wedding as Cassie’s ex-boyfriend looks on. Simultaneously, we see Al’s former lawyer receive a copy of the incriminating video of Nina’s rape, as well as a letter from Cassie disclosing that she was going to the bachelor party, it’s location and what to do/assume if she went missing. We’re treated to the gruesome discovery of Cassie’s remains before watching Al get arrested at his own wedding.
Promising Young Woman has so much going for it. Carey Mulligan will receive an Oscar nomination, no doubt in my mind. Bo Burnham is so charming as he sings along to Paris Hilton in a convenience store that it’s all the more painful when we realize he’s not the good guy he claims to be. And Chris Lowell and Max Greenfield’s performances show us why no one seems to know those “really bad guys,” because they genuinely don’t think they’ve done anything wrong, they feel there’s some loophole that makes them exempt from accountability.
Of course, the big disappointment is that I wanted Cassie to come through on the other side triumphant and alive to be able to see those assholes brought to justice. But the reality is that the justice system and college system fail rape survivors every day. Survivors are doubted, bullied and ridiculed, while their attackers are given the benefit of the doubt. And even when there’s proof, witnesses and beyond, the punishment hardly ever fits the crime (Brock Turner comes to mind). So, as much as I was heartbroken to watch Cassie die (I’m serious; I was crossing my fingers she would not actually be dead, right up until her body burned), a woman having to endure a horrific murder to get actual justice for another woman’s rape is pretty on brand for any justice system. It’s not the feminist revenge fantasy I wanted, but it’s the one we deserve.
Words Nicole Caliro
Art Matthew Fetalver