I caught a trailer of “Promising Young Woman” on television one day. I did not hear all of the dialogue, but I heard a brief exchange.
I heard a man say, “It’s every man’s worst nightmare, getting accused of something like that.”
I heard Carey Mulligan say, without skipping a beat, “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”
That was all I needed to know.
Cassie Thomas aspired to become a doctor with her childhood best friend, Nina. However, after Nina was raped and driven to suicide, Cassie dropped out of medical school. Now in her thirties, she lives with her parents and works at a coffee shop. She cut contact with her university friends, and she continues to grieve the loss of her friend.
And she is determined to make anyone in her path pay for what happened.
Something I admire about this film is the way it visually approaches sexual assault. The film does not show the rape itself, but it also does not shy away from depicting relevant brutality. The climax of the film is a culmination of the violence alluded to by everyone. When you watch everything unfold, you feel as though you witnessed an assault take place.
The implication of Nina’s death is made clear, but no one explicitly says the word “suicide.” We hear about what happened to Nina more than we hear about Nina herself. As Cassie puts it, “she was just Nina, and then she wasn’t.”
This is the directorial debut of Emerald Fennell, best known for her work on BBC America’s “Killing Eve.” You can find a lot of the show’s dark humor and complex characterization in the screenplay. This makes “Promising Young Woman” a familiar venture to fans of the show and a breath of fresh air in the realm of revenge thrillers.
I would not call Cassie a good person due to her morally questionable pursuit of justice. But both the screenplay and Carey Mulligan’s vicious performance help rationalize the character’s mindset. You do not want to root for someone like Cassie, but when those around her reveal their true colors, it is like watching a bloody prom queen leave a burning building. You sympathize with the person everyone sees as a monster because the original monsters were the “normal” people.
Everything about Carey Mulligan is Cassie Thomas. She does not become the role or transform into a character. She simply is Cassie. That is the highest praise I can give an actor.
I also noticed very meticulous details in Cassie’s appearance. During the day, she wears bright clothes and pastel nail polish. At night, she dons a stereotypical party girl get-up. One part of her is in a state of arrested development due to her childhood friend’s death. Another part is disheveled and openly vulnerable, embodying the “bait” people treated Nina as.
Bo Burnham plays Cassie’s love interest Ryan. While this seems like an unusual casting decision, it makes sense in execution. Burnham is a popular comedian who specializes in anti-comedy. Despite his musical skills and gentle giant demeanor, his humor is crass, blunt and nihilistic. This not only fits the overall tone of “Promising Young Woman,” but it also builds up an interesting character arc throughout the film.
Another strong element in this film is the music. Most utilization of contemporary pop is either filibuster or a complete detriment. In “Promising Young Woman,” the inclusion of specific songs serve as a part of the narrative’s cohesion.
The introductory song is “Boys” by Charli XCX. From a metatextual perspective, the music video received acclaim for its portrayal of wholesome masculinity. The video features men of various races and body types being goofy, messy and cute. None of their attractive qualities relied on exaggerated displays of machismo. In the film’s introduction, the song is superimposed over imagery of men displaying crude and misogynistic behavior at a bar.
Another song is “Stars Are Blind” by Paris Hilton. It is played during a montage of Cassie and Ryan sharing intimate moments as a couple. It adds to the budding chemistry between the two characters. It also serves as subtle foreshadowing to Cassie uncovering a terrible secret about the assault. If giving a Paris Hilton song narrative significance does not earn Fennell awards for her screenplay, I do not know what will.
I am tempted to shrug off people who refer to the film as “man-hating.” Saying it is ignorant to prioritize alleged misandry over a reckoning with our culture’s treatment of sexual violence is putting it lightly. But I do want to call attention to how predators are portrayed in this film.
One guy Cassie encounters offers her an Uber home while his friends mock her. Another does not attempt anything when she appears passed out. When Nina’s rapist appears onscreen, his first line of dialogue is bringing up his fiancée’s request not to bring strippers to his bachelor party. These are not men who outwardly fit the mold of a sexual predator but instead shield themselves behind the visage of “nice guys.”
No one wants to admit they displayed complicit behaviors. But at the same time, no one is above reflecting on their reasons for doubting abuse allegations. The justification of abuse apologism does not always come from a place of malice. It can come from cognitive dissonance and a desire to maintain harmony rather than confront one’s feelings on the subject.
It comes in the form of seeing your coach physically harassing a teenage girl and likening it to locker room tussles. It comes in the form of choosing to remain friends with someone’s abuser because your friendship with them is too special. It comes in the form of seeing everyone in your class laugh at and belittle a student on multiple occasions but doing nothing to stop it.
How they acted will never affect them, but guess who it will affect.
It affects the person who grows up punished, isolated and driven away while their abusers and bullies move on untouched. It affects the person who isolates themself from the world because these people are inescapably close to their personal circles. It affects the person who retreats into themself and cannot open up the same way again. The victimizers and their sycophants will never be affected by their decisions because they exist in a bubble that rebukes any accountability. But it will always affect the victims thinking every day, “Why do they get to live life unscathed after what they did to me? What did I do wrong?”
“Promising Young Woman” is a movie that breaks the ice nobody wanted to crack. It brings up timely discussions of sexual violence, but it also approaches the ugliness of survivorhood and secondary trauma. It encapsulates vengeance in a pill that tastes sweet but is difficult to swallow. It is a movie everyone needs to watch at least once to see where they stand on these issues and how to self-reflect afterward. Whether you come for the social commentary or not, Fennell’s sharp direction and a powerhouse performance by Mulligan will keep you in your seat.
And to every abuser and apologist who leaves the film looking over their shoulder the same way we have for most of our lives: you know who you are.
So do we.