FYI: There’s no way for me to properly discuss this film without mentioning spoilers — I’ve consolidated the big ones to two paragraphs towards the bottom, which I’ve bookended. Proceed with caution.
In the final episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark explains why she became a prosecutor. She relays that she was raped as a teenager, and that her first rape case as a lawyer not only unearthed the pain of that experience, but made her purpose in the practice crystal clear: “I have something — this thing in me that wants vengeance. Vengeance for victims. That’s what justice is to me.”
I have no idea if the real Marcia Clark ever uttered those words, but I think about then every so often. And when I saw the trailer for Promising Young Woman, they were all I could think about.
Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is familiar with the concept of vengeance. In college, her best friend Nina was raped while a crowd of guys watched. After the fact, no one believed the story, Nina dropped out of school, and Cassie followed suit in order to take care of her, to no avail — it’s implied that Nina eventually took her own life. Now a med school drop-out on the verge of turning 30, Cassie is willfully rooted in the past along with her trauma: She still lives with both parents (who seem both frightened by and worried for her), works at a local coffee shop, and frequents the local night clubs.
The latter isn’t for shits and giggles, though — it’s where the vengeance part comes in. She dolls up, gets fake-plastered in public, and waits. Without fail, some Nice Guy™ approaches her and plays at being concerned. He eventually gets her alone, and at the last possible moment — when he thinks she’s too far gone to do or remember anything — she yanks the rug out from under him: She is stone cold sober, and now she gets to threaten him with the knowledge of his own predatory behavior. It’s satisfying, but consuming; her loved ones worry about her. When she reconnects with former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), Cassie attempts to reframe her life and drop the nightclub vigilante missions. (Spoiler: It doesn’t last long.)
As you might imagine, Promising Young Woman is a dark, dark comedy. It’s also a sharp revenge thriller — a highly confrontational tale that women will identify with immediately. Even so, this is a traumatic film to watch if you’ve ever been sexually assaulted, so be mindful of your own limitations. More on that later.
If you’re unfamiliar with writer/director Emerald Fennell, you may recognize her utterly strange sense of humor in Killing Eve — she was the head writer for the show’s second season. Fennell has structured this story in my favorite way: She gives the audience no information, having them experience and learn along with the people Cassie encounters. It’s a swift-moving film, and efficient: not a single sequence goes by without adding a significant building block to the plot or the character development. Its urgency matches Cassie’s singular, bitter focus every step of the way.
Meanwhile, the visuals do the opposite: Arrest the eye and place the viewer in locations that are damn near edible. There’s a running theme of Cassie wearing and sitting among sweet candy shop hues and floral motifs that goes beyond irony and into the calculated. Fennell is a fan of lux colors, canted Hitchcock angles, and wide shots that threaten to swallow her subjects whole. I love the implication of the wide shots, actually — that’s her telling the viewers, “I know you know this is happening all around you. This is what it would look like if you actually paid attention.” Her work references color palettes from the likes of Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson, lightning-quick time-change edits a la Ari Aster, and the kind of slow creep-in shots that make David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows impossible to watch while sitting still.
This cast is a clutch ensemble. The choice of familiar, lovable Adam Brody as the first Nice Guy we meet was a genius move. Laverne Cox doesn’t get enough to do, but she’s a good counter to Cassie’s caustic nature. I’m always happy to see Max Greenfield, who has quickly mastered the ability to play varying degrees of douche. Alison Brie stands out (as usual) as a saccharine, wine-guzzling Millennial mom-type — though here, she also brilliantly personifies internalized misogyny.
Promising Young Woman doesn’t work without a skilled lead — someone with immense levels of emotional control, who can flip between innocent and wizened, aloof and shrewd, humorous and cutting. Carey Mulligan is an absolute beast in this role, recognizable in a way that will instantly earn the trust of every woman who’s done the tedious work of building defenses against predators (so, all of us). She plays a person who’s spent years learning how to harness and direct her rage, preempt the uncontrollable — so much that when she gets cat-called by construction workers during an early-morning walk home, she doesn’t hesitate to stop and stare them down. She knows the difference between actual attackers and mouthy twits, and she knows that “weird” women suddenly become not worth it if she makes guys too uncomfortable. Even if the whole ensemble wasn’t this strong, Mulligan would carry this film with zero problems.
The surprise of this movie — to me, at least — was Bo Burnham. I’ve never seen any of his comedy material, so I had no idea what to expect… but the way he plays Ryan here makes perfect sense. Of course the only sort of man that Cassie would drop her guard for is an awkwardly honest, smart, self-deprecating, safe dude who also happens to have just as sick of a sense of humor as she does. This is why the final act of the film is so crushing — skip the next two paragraphs if you want to remain unspoiled.
I knew I’d probably get agitated during a movie about assault and predators, but I didn’t expect to full-on lose it at any point. The thing that set me off wasn’t the near-rape scenes at the beginning, or hearing Brie’s character casually throw other women under the bus, or even learning that Cassie’s friend was so distraught after her attack that she’d been “squeezed out” of existence. It was the moment Cassie obtained a video from the night of Nina’s rape and found out that Ryan had been there that night. That’s honestly the nightmare: To have put in the work to deal with your own relationship issues and find someone you can trust, only to learn that that person — this doofy, intelligent, safe guy you’ve carefully hand-picked— is One of Those Guys.
This is what we mean when we allude to “rape culture” — it’s like being a bird in a glass box. It’s the feeling that no matter where we turn, we’re always going to be snuffed into silence, even when the violation was so obviously terrible. It’s the system and social culture that allows Nina’s rapist to graduate, get engaged, and defend himself by crying, “We were kids!!” It’s the privileged survival instinct that prompts Alison Brie’s character to roll her eyes and mutter, “It’s crying wolf.” And maybe worst of all, it’s the sheer denial that bolsters presumably Actual Good Guys like Ryan to move past their regrettable associations by simply thinking, “I didn’t do anything, so it’s okay!” In fact, the reason it’s not okay is because he didn’t do anything.
More than revenge, Promising Young Woman pursues accountability on a personal and systemic level.
The only part of this film that didn’t always land right with me was the music. The score was solid — all growling, aching strings for appropriate thrills and prolonged dread — it’s the song choices that were hit or miss. I cackled at the opening sequence, which is a two-faced jab at objectification: it’s a hip-level music video-esque montage of dudes in belted khakis dancing at a club, set to the DROELOE remix of Charlie XCX’s “Boys.” Elsewhere, some of the other pop/trap tunes took me out of the vibes of the film a bit. Loved the wicked cover of “It’s Raining Men,” and I’ll never say no to a good strings cover like “Toxic.” (Let’s everyone say a quick thanks to Jordan Peele, who’s arguably the patron saint of using creepy strings covers in film.)
I relate to this movie. Between myself and the number of close girlfriends I’ve had since age 18, at least half of us (that I know of) have been assaulted and/or raped. So yes — I identify with a woman so consumed with vengeance over her best friend being violated that she makes it her chief cause in life to put fear into entitled men everywhere.
More than revenge, Promising Young Woman pursues accountability on personal and systemic levels. An unfortunately tall order, as we’ve seen over and over… but what would be more painful: Holding every sexual predator properly accountable, or letting most of the assaulted continue to be saddled with the consequences? Depends on who you think the real victims are in sexual assault cases— and the fact that that’s even in question is the biggest problem of all.