ARTS

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February 14, 2021

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1:09 p.m.

"Promising Young Woman" Is a Brutally Honest Take on Violent Sexism


"Promising Young Woman" uses religious imagery to portray Cassie (Carey Mulligan) as an avenging angel.

Courtesy of "Promising Young Woman"

Content warning: This article contains explicit mentions of sexual assault.

The following review contains spoilers for Promising Young Woman.

Promising Young Woman is a film that revels in subversion. Its protagonist, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), is a 30-year-old med school dropout who goes to bars every week and pretends to be drunk. Inevitably, a “nice guy” comes up and offers to take her home. Inevitably, that “nice guy” tries to take advantage of her while she’s incapacitated, at which point Cassie reveals she’s sober. At first, the film implies that Cassie might be killing the men, though we eventually learn she is only intimidating them into (hopefully) not repeating their actions. 

We learn that she does this because her friend Nina had been raped by fellow student Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) back in med school, while others looked on. Nina reported this event but was only shamed for it. Monroe was never charged and Nina and Cassie both dropped out, with Nina dying by suicide sometime before the film begins. It’s clear Cassie has never been able to move on from this trauma and is instead enacting her revenge on the men who perpetuate this predatory behavior. She eventually hatches a plan to also get revenge on those she holds responsible for Nina’s death, including Madison (Alison Brie), an acquaintance who didn’t believe Nina, and Dean Walker (Connie Britton), the dean of the college who didn’t fully investigate Nina’s rape. Her plans are never physically violent; mostly she is trying to get those responsible to confront the true weight of what they’ve done. 

 It's an unquestionably serious film, with an incredibly heavy subject matter. But it pairs this weighty material with a bright aesthetic. The film is suffused with bright colors, and Cassie herself is explicitly feminine. She’s often clothed in pink, wearing dresses and sporting multi-colored nails that are continuously highlighted throughout the film. The film’s soundtrack is also pop-heavy, featuring artists such as Charli XCX, FLETCHER, Paris Hilton, and a wonderful orchestral rendering of Britney Spears’s “Toxic.” Pink, painted nails and pop music, often portrayed as frivolous and shallow, portend danger in Promising Young Woman. After all, the men who take Cassie home don’t see her as dangerous; they think that they hold the power. In Promising Young Woman, femininity contains its own form of violence: it’s a cover under which danger hides. Cassie might be pretty in pink, but she’s also angry and out for revenge.

Cassie’s quest for revenge is unquestionably righteous, but the film emphasizes how her single-minded focus on revenge is inherently self-destructive. Even though it's been years since Nina’s death, Cassie still lives at her parents’ house, and beyond her excursions to bars and her job at a coffee shop, she basically has no life and no friends. It’s not much of a life for a 30-year-old woman, and the film highlights how the trauma from Nina’s rape has ruined Cassie’s life. The film’s use of religious imagery, often showing Cassie with a halo-like glow around her, fixes Cassie as something like an avenging angel, but this only highlights how her primary drive is revenge and anger. Her anger is all-consuming; it’s all she has left to the extent that, despite her bright aesthetic, her personality and dreams have been leached out. Cassie is able to get confessions from Madison and Dean Walker, but these actions don’t bring her peace. She’s still as frustrated, angry, and lost as she was before.

Eventually, Cassie confronts Jordan Green (Alfred Molina), the lawyer who had defended Monroe all those years ago, who is already wracked with guilt, forcing her to reevaluate her motives. After a conversation with Nina’s mother (Molly Shannon), Cassie decides to move on. Her relationship with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former acquaintance from med school, blossoms into a heartfelt romance. For a while it seems like Cassie might be able to move on and have a life outside of her grief over Nina. And Ryan seems like a good person, who respects her, cares for her, and isn’t like all of the awful men portrayed so far.

But this brief moment of happiness is shattered when Madison gives Cassie a video of Nina’s rape, revealing that Ryan was there among the bystanders. Despite how “nice” he seemed, he wasn’t that different from the rest of them, and Cassie loses all hope. She ends her relationship with Ryan and recommits to finishing her plan of revenge. She goes to Monroe’s bachelor party pretending to be a stripper, planning to carve Nina’s name into Monroe’s body to make sure he’ll never forget what he did. Any viewer would expect this to be the ultimate moment of comeuppance, where Cassie is finally able to fully avenge Nina in an act of catharsis. 

But instead, Monroe chokes Cassie to death in a brutally long scene. It’s a truly shocking turn, and I found myself believing she was still alive until Monroe was literally burning her body. Cassie eventually does “win” in the end; she planned for the possibility of her death and sent evidence of her whereabouts to Green, causing Monroe to be arrested at his wedding. This was the moment of satisfaction we were denied earlier, but it felt extremely bittersweet. Neither Cassie nor Nina were alive to see it, and the first time I watched it, I couldn’t help but feel that the implication was that Cassie had to die for Al to be arrested, which felt wrong.

In a sense, the whole film revolves around this ending, as this twist is what truly separates the film from being a thoughtful, fun and satisfying revenge flick to something truly unique. So, what to make of it then? It’s clearly another instance of subversion in the film, a twist on the “dead stripper at the bachelor party” trope wherein the nameless stripper merely serves as a catalyst for the male hero. But in this instance, Cassie, the dead stripper, is the protagonist and hero of the story who propels the plot.

A deeper way to explain Cassie’s death is that it sends the message that revenge is inherently toxic and destructive. After Cassie learns of Ryan’s involvement in Nina’s rape, she seems lost, lacking the motivation or will to do anything besides getting revenge for Nina. Perhaps she even wanted to die, making Cassie’s death the final emphasis on how revenge is ultimately an unproductive goal, even when it’s righteous.

Yet in the end, the idea that Cassie dying is some message about revenge being destructive feels unsatisfying to me. The film has already made abundantly clear how Cassie’s hyperfixation on revenge for Nina’s rape is harmful to her. She doesn’t need to literally die for that point to stand. Many revenge stories effectively convey the destructiveness of revenge without main characters dying. And, in many of these stories, the protagonist lives on, empty and broken after successfully taking revenge, and must figure out what to do next with their hollow life. I can’t help but yearn for Cassie to have a chance to grapple with that too, the question of how to finally move on. It feels like she’s been denied that chance, and her death certainly isn’t needed to hammer home what her quest for revenge has cost her.

Despite this, I don’t think this twist is bad. In fact, I think that what makes it truly thought-provoking isn’t related to revenge, or trope subversion, but in how it emphasizes the unequal gendered power dynamics in society. In an interview, director Emerald Fennell says, “There’s a reason that there are no weapons in this movie until the end. There are reasons that the weapon is introduced in a room with a man and a woman in it, that the woman doesn’t win.” In withholding the cathartic ending we want, the film further highlights how little power women often have in situations like these. Although the version of the film where Cassie brutally enacts revenge on Monroe may have been the more enjoyable or temporarily satisfying version of the film, the version where she dies is undeniably better, if more depressing. It’s truer: it shows that there is no easy way out of this problem, and even someone like Cassie, who was prepared for every scenario (even her own death), can still be killed on a man’s momentary whim. This may leave the viewer feeling dissatisfied, but for good reason. Male violence towards women is so deeply ingrained in our society that there can be no quick catharsis, or easy narrative, where one badass woman can singularly overcome violent sexism. There is only the brutal truth that two women have to die, and innumerable lives have to be ruined, for one man to be brought to justice.

Promising Young Woman is revelatory in how it refuses to mince words and refuses to take the easy way out in every instance. It refuses to glorify the revenge tale, refuses to fall into the trope of there being one good “nice guy” who’s not like the others, and finally, refuses to offer viewers an easy catharsis on an issue for which there is no easy solution. Cassie and Nina, the “Promising Young Women” of the film’s title, were top of their class in medical school, with bright futures ahead of them. Yet both of their lives are ruined by Nina’s rape and by authorities’ and friends’ refusal to hold men accountable. More than anything, the film shows the cost of this refusal, how it ruins the lives of not just Nina, but Nina’s parents, Cassie, and Cassie’s parents. Justice may finally have been served, but at what cost? Nina and Cassie are both dead and their promising futures are crushed, all for the sake of one “nice guy.”