Promising Young Woman is a feast overall, but one that leaves you questioning what part you ate that didn’t agree with you because something is off. There is a lot that works for the film—it’s visually arresting, directorially stunning, the soundtrack is beautiful and the acting, particularly by Carey Mulligan, is phenomenal. Unfortunately it falls short, especially at the end and incites feelings of pain, anger and questions as to the overall message of the film.
The film follows Cassie, a woman who dropped out of med school seven years ago after something happened to her childhood friend, Nina, at the same med school. Cassie now lives with her parents while working at a coffee shop and, at night, goes to bars pretending to be blackout drunk to see who will try and take advantage of her. When she encounters a former classmate at her job, Ryan, who is also a love interest, tells her that the individual who raped her friend has returned from overseas to get married, she has a choice to make.
Direction and Acting With Purpose
Let me get the positives out of the way. The directing by Emerald Fennell is strong and I appreciate a film that doesn’t repeatedly pummel their audience with trauma (but that ending!). We know Cassie’s friend, Nina, was raped but the film understands there is no need to show us what happened. Information is pieced together based on info provided by the characters throughout the film. The bright, cotton candy colors in the film are gorgeous and purposely jar with the more uncomfortable scenes but it’s consciously done. The soundtrack is also lovely, filled with women artists from various genres as well as different decades and fits the myriad scenes well whether it’s complementing or contrasting with what we see on screen.
Carey Mulligan is amazing in the role of Cassie. Given the colors, including her outfits starkly contrasting with subject matter and plot, her acting could’ve easily gone overboard. Yet Carey Mulligan delivers a strong performance that shows the anger, guilt and pain Cassie embodies. Even when she is sarcastic and darkly joking with these rapists it never seems exaggerated. Her delivery is often deadpan, which they mistake for humor.
Not A Revenge Film So Much As A Warning
This is not a revenge film to me. Revenge, as depicted in films, often implies over the top elaborative schemes that harm innocent people in its wake. Revenge is seeking payback. That’s not what happens here. Because each situation presents these men, and women who shielded them, with a choice. Cassie educates them rather than seeking revenge or justice throughout the majority of the film.
The men in the bars and clubs approach Cassie because she appears vulnerable. She does not pursue or approach them. Nor does she kill them as far as we know or she would’ve been jailed early on given that long list. Cassie is showing them who they are, without their “good guy” persona because this is often the case. Men will appear caring, understanding and even “woke” but still adhere to societal beliefs that women and girls are their property to use as they want. The act of revenge even against the man who raped her friend and those who took part, isn’t revenge but justice.
Won’t Fit In A Box
Their choices brought them to justice, and even the word “justice” feels wrong. What justice is there, after all, in a woman sacrificing herself so that the men will be seen for who and what they are and, hopefully, be punished? Also, as previously stated, she doesn’t harm the men who would’ve raped her if she were actually drunk. She is putting herself through harm to teach a lesson. This is also common among groups who are not white and/or male. We are expected to make ourselves vulnerable to harm in the hopes of “educating” them about our experiences and teaching them to see our value. Which leads to my biggest issue with the film—the ending.
This ending can be interpreted as justice can only come with self-sacrifice, or it’s her punishment for not being able to move past what happened. The color-coded notebook she uses to track her encounters in bars with men is also worrying. Since we don’t see her actually react violently to these men, what is the result of the men marked and written in her book in red? Do they realize she is sober and proceed to attack her regardless? As women are the focal point the theme that women’s value is specifically tied up in their identity and their use of it in a sacrificial manner to create change cannot be ignored. It is not our job to educate any more than it’s a man’s job to “bring home the bacon”.
Does this perhaps fit Cassie’s character? Considering the risks she is taking it’s evident she’s also punishing herself for not going with Nina to that party that horrific night. That’s why her life is a life devoid of deep connections and relationships. She feels she’s undeserving of her life. In the end, they took a woman who was trying to bring justice for her friend and herself and made her a tragedy. That wink face emoji didn’t feel triumphant, it just felt sad.
Feature image courtesy of Focus Features