Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, known for being the season 2 showrunner of Killing Eve, Promising Young Woman was described on its poster as a ‘#MeToo revenge thriller with bite!’ but it’s so much more. So, so much more.
Slumped into the red vinyl of a nightclub couch, Cassie Thomas is a venus fly trap in waiting. The once bright and vivacious Cassie was on the path to becoming a doctor – considered exceptionally bright and (as the film’s title would suggest) promising, Cassie and her best friend Nina were on their way to a successful future until their classmate Al Monroe raped Nina at a party and everything fell apart. Now in her 30s, a college dropout that works in a coffee shop, Cassie has become a cold, calm and extremely calculated form of revenge.
Slumped into that vinyl, Cassie pretends to be drunk so some guy will approach her. Her victim (played by every millennial’s first nerd crush Adam Brody) is a ‘nice guy’. He doesn’t join in when his mates make derogatory and sexist remarks about how drunk she appears to be, about how she’s ‘asking for it’. No, he does the right thing – he shows her kindness and offers to take her home. But he doesn’t take her home. He takes her to his place instead (it’s closer), assures her that she’s ‘safe’ with him (she’s not), then he tries to rape her when she’s at her most vulnerable (ugh). And then, right in that moment when he believes he’s scored, Cassie makes her final move. Back in the genuine safety of her own home, that nice guy becomes another name and hash mark in her notebook; a running tally of all the men she’s fooled into revealing their true selves.
Starring Carey Mulligan in the role of Cassie, Promising Young Woman is a sharp, provocative video essay on the dangers of rape culture and it is perfect in every way. Where do I even begin?
I suppose I should start with the superbly cast Mulligan. Cassie is someone who, at what should be the prime of her life, has allowed herself to become bitter and jaded, actively pursuing unsuspecting ‘nice guys’ around town that she can punish and humiliate as though she were the Pied Piper come calling. Still living in her parents’ gaudy home in a room replete with outdated furniture and decor (you know the kind, the ‘my parents/grandparents bought everything they own at Franco Cozzo’ type), she carries with her an immense amount of guilt and anger, seeking retribution for her friend who was so carelessly treated by their school, peers, and local authorities.
Cassie has trapped herself in the darkest part of her past, forcing herself to feel like a failure for not protecting Nina as though it’s what she deserves. We as the audience know this isn’t true, everyone around her knows this isn’t true. Nina’s mum begs of her to “move on, for all of us” and her dad remarks that although he cared for and misses Nina, he “missed [Cassie] too”, and when her life finally starts to look brighter with the arrival of her old classmate and love interest Ryan (played by comedian and musician Bo Burnham) we all root for her, wanting to see her heal and live a fulfilling life.
Mulligan really does possess this girl-next-door charm that makes her alluring and alarming in equal measure. You can tell that she had a blast bringing Cassie to life, and she plays the role with a wryness that still makes her incredibly likeable in spite of all the shitty things she does in the name of vengeance. Cassie is a true anti-heroine, just trying to do right by her friend by exposing men and their predatory behaviours by any means she deems appropriate. She is sympathetic and a little scary, which makes her incredibly unpredictable and an absolute delight to watch.
Yes, Promising Young Woman is a #MeToo movie but, in my humble and angry feminist opinion, it is not a movie about Nina’s rape or even really a movie about Cassie’s revenge. When you look deeper, past the narrative plot device of Cassie’s crusade to punish the people she believes are responsible for Nina’s assault and subsequent suffering, Promising Young Woman is a movie about men. It’s an interrogation and an exposé of the men who truly believe that they are nice, good, decent people – the ones who believe that they were too young, too promising, to be held accountable for committing a rape or assault, and especially the ones who see and hear their friends do terrible things to women and do nothing. The men of this world who absolve themselves of guilt simply because they weren’t an active participant are some of the most dangerous; every time they stay silent, they are complicit in promoting a culture that puts the responsibility of rape and assault on the victims.
In the wake of high profile criminal cases like Weinstein and Crosby, and more locally, the rape and assault allegations made by Brittany Higgins and other parliamentary staff against high ranking government officials, Promising Young Woman is a powerful and infuriating reminder that the snake in the grass won’t always hiss before they bite you – sometimes they will give you a shoulder to lean on, a smile, kind words, and a hand to steady you before they take your safety and dignity when you least expect it.