“Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”, Cassandra retorts when pleaded with by one of her victims that every guy’s worst nightmare is receiving an assault accusation. It’s no secret that Hollywood has allowed crimes of abuse against women go unpunished and unpublicized within the industry. Striking down and discrediting the victims making said claims while continuing to boost the careers and reputations of those being accused. Most prominently, the arrest of notorious film producer Harvey Weinstein for multiple charges of rape and sexual assault and the election of Donald Trump led to a minor reckoning in the #MeToo Movement. Social movements like these gave way for women (not just those within the entertainment industry) to share their experiences and speak out against their abusers, hoping that they will finally receive any form of justice. In this way, Promising Young Woman is the cinematic embodiment of every ounce of frustration, anger, and ultimate catharsis that this movement has represented for women who have gone unheard for far too long.
In Emerald Fennell’s feature film debut, Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is haunted by a traumatic college experience that has led her onto a path of revenge against predatory men and the patriarchal standards allowed for abusive men to get away with their crimes against women. Her trademark tactic is to go to a local bar, pretend to be drunk beyond the point of consciousness, and wait for a self-proclaimed “nice guy” to take her home, which is where their true nefarious intentions come to light.
What’s remarkably restrained and intelligently thought-out about her approach’s presentation is that once she has them right where she wants them, she doesn’t torture or kidnap them like in many other traditional depictions of women seeking revenge in most movies. She reveals herself to be sober, which for them is pathetically already enough to emotionally shake them to their core, then proceeds to confront them about their actions, which leads them to inadvertently exposing themselves for who they truly are and what they were about to do. She as a character is not only interrogating these fictional men about their behaviour, but the film itself acts as an interrogation of the biases and social norms that allow rape culture to pervade. What’s most impressive is Fennell’s ability to tackle and allude to these extremely triggering topics in unmistakably direct manners, all without ever needing to use the words “rape” or “sexual assault” anywhere in the screenplay.
Fennell examines the structural institutions that give every benefit of the doubt to the alleged perpetrators without granting that same degree of legitimacy to a victim’s testimony. This perceptive approach emphasizes that the issue at hand is a systematically rooted problem at its core and isn’t something that can be simplified to just a matter of personal responsibility as many try to frame it. This angle reveals Cassandra’s plots to expose the flippant hypocrisy and stigmas that dissuade women from coming forward. When discussing the incident with other people involved with the act or with the verdict, Cassandra is met with the kinds of cliched excuses and straw man arguments that have become all too common when debating this subject (“How much did she have to drink?”, “She shouldn’t have let herself be put in that situation.”, “Boys will be boys,” etc.) Both Cassandra as a character and Fennell as a writer/director find morbid yet creative ways to take these excuses and turn them back around on those using these bad-faith arguments, to show them that it’s easy to make these kinds of dismissive retorts when it’s about someone you don’t know, but if it were you or someone you loved in the same situation, it’d be a completely different story. The scripting for these elaborate scenarios is also highly conscious as not to make Cassandra’s actions, drastic as they may be at times, match or exceed the stories that she is seeking retribution for, avoiding any instances of betraying her personal morals for the sake of making a point.
For a character with as much vindictive vitriol seething from her with every action, there’s a fine line to walk to make her still a sympathetic, likable protagonist with understandable motivations, and Carey Mulligan does it with almost effortless grace. She plays out her devious schemes with a wink and smile as she takes pleasure in watching men squirm with disgust at themselves. When she’s alone with her thoughts, and this playful facade is dropped, the broken soul racked with guilt and regret that she truly is, comes to the forefront. The balance between quirky playfulness and bitter vitriol makes for the deliciously dynamic lead performance that Mulligan deserves after over a decade of consistently fantastic character work.
The supporting cast is also populated with recognizable character actors whose appearances in the film are all a warmly welcomed delight. Bo Burnham, coming off of his directorial debut with Eighth Grade, is a wildly charming comedic presence who has sizzling chemistry with Mulligan, which will hopefully lead to a broader acting career in the future. Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown are wonderfully wholesome and supportive as Cassandra’s parents. Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, and Molly Shannon are also lovely additions to the cast in their brief appearances, respectively. There’s also an uncredited cameo role by a particular former Spider-Man villain whose appearance comes as a surprise, to say the least.
The film ultimately ends as an undoubtedly polarizing conversation starter that is certain to leave a bitter taste in many audience members’ mouths. The film manages to both crush the viewer’s hopes and expectations in an unexpectedly cruel manner yet also deliver on the exact cathartic crowd-pleasing finale that could have been hoped for. There are a couple of plot conveniences and leaps in logic to make it fully reach its goal, but like most of the film’s greatest qualities, it is a fine line to walk that manages to pull it off with a respectable, if not entirely perfect, grace. Promising Young Woman is bound to be a lightning rod for discussions about sexism, gender politics, the long-lasting effects of sexual crimes against women, and inspire examinations of internal biases and personal behaviours for years to come.
Review: Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman is the cinematic embodiment of every ounce of frustration, anger, and ultimate catharsis for women who have gone unheard for far too long
Intelligent examination of institutional sexism and trauma