In Emerald Fennell’s debut project, Promising Young Woman, a young woman named Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is haunted and traumatized by a horrific event in her past involving her best friend, Nina. Dropping out of med school, Cassie’s life becomes engulfed by revenge. All wrapped up in pastel colors and candy coating, I’ll admit that I was initially quite enraptured by this story. After all, it’s not hard to pluck a scene out of the film and find yourself relating to the rage and disgust that Cassie feels.
The first half of the film shows vignettes of Cassie going out, pretending to get drunk, and attracting the attention of a man. Where it goes from there is up to the man. Does he call her a cab to make sure she gets home safe? Or does he decide to tell the cab driver to stop at his apartment first so that he can take this inebriated woman upstairs for a couple of nightcaps? When he inevitably tries to take advantage of her, she unveils the truth. She’s sober. And she knows exactly what he just tried to do. The film isn’t exactly clear what happens to the guys afterward. In one shot, she’s got some blood on her, but then in other scenes, she proves to be not as bloodthirsty as she might appear.
I found myself frustrated when it came to Cassie because I wanted so much to dig deeper into her character. In many ways, she is more a vehicle for her own vengeance than she is a person. I don’t want Cassie to be consumed by this trauma. I want her to heal, I want her to find happiness, I want her to seek professional help. Yes, there is painful injustice in the world, and part of me is satisfied to see the face of every perpetrator turn sour when Cassie reveals her duplicity. But I deeply want Cassie to live her life and enjoy her life. The people who love her in life – her parents, Nina’s mom, her co-worker – want her to achieve more, it’s not sourced from shame or disappointment but wanting her to heal and move on.
The sad thing is, it’s not the potential of medical school or some picture-perfect life that is promising for Cassie in Promising Young Woman. It’s a healthy life where she lives with balance and grows. But we don’t see this. In her floral patterned clothes, rainbow pastel nails, with free-flowing blonde locks, Cassie looks like she’s locked in time. She turns 30 but is living at home, working as a barista, and trapped in arrested development.
We don’t get to see Cassie heal, but on the flip-side, there is no satisfying catharsis for the viewer. We watch as predators paw Cassie, but we get no satisfaction in seeing violent revenge. If you want to make a revenge movie, make it a revenge movie. But then the punches are pulled. Cassie walks away. Do the men learn their lesson? Or do they gain a deeper hatred and misogyny? Who knows. It’s frustrating because Fennell does put on a good show. Visually the film is arresting and I love a good pop music soundtrack. But, ultimately, it’s style over substance.
— Warning, past this point, I will discuss MAJOR spoilers for the film. —
At the core of this story about rape culture and rape-revenge, there is a muddled message. Do we root for Cassie? Do we root for someone so broken, who only gets the satisfaction of the upper-hand after she’s dead? The final act is painful. I don’t feel anything but empty when we see that final pink bubble pop up with a winkie face. What do we already know about the justice system from this movie? It’s unfair.
The dean, played by Connie Britton, who forgets the women who come forward because there are just so many of them, and why would she ruin the life of someone just over an accusation? Her friends, who all had incriminating evidence of Nina’s rape, never came forward and many participated in the crime. The lawyer, played by Alfred Molina, who says it’s way too easy to turn a victim of an assault into a harlot. I will eternally be disgusted by the fact Cassie accepted his apology, if you are at all familiar with the way lawyers punish the victims of assault with details of their life to slut-shame them, you’ll know none of these lawyers deserve forgiveness.
Cassie doesn’t have the last laugh. Nina doesn’t have the last laugh. Women, in general, do not have the last laugh. Why must Alison Brie’s character be punished? Why must Connie Britton’s be scared for the safety of her daughter? Yes, what they did was bad, but they are also women who have undoubtedly experienced the horrors of rape culture, they have just decided to normalize it. There’s no gratification for me in watching Britton yell at Cassie, imagining what is happening to her daughter. There’s no gratification for me in watching Alison Brie get drunk and then wake up in a hotel room with a stranger not knowing what has happened.
There’s so much potential in Promising Young Woman, but that’s all that there is. Potential. At least from Emerald Fennell. The anger is there, I feel it. I am also enraged. But it doesn’t deliver, I end up feeling hopeless. I’m not satisfied-but-sickened at the sight of Cassie’s bloody revenge. I’m not devastated by the injustice of men simply getting away with their crimes. The only strongly positive thing I take away from this is adoration for Carey Mulligan, who continuously has been impressing me over the years. In a film that left me so often frustrated, I actually loved Mulligan’s take on Cassie.
But not even Carey Mulligan, a fantastic string-quartet version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” or a pleasing color palette can save this for me. Go into Promising Young Woman with eyes open and abandon all hope, ye who enter. There is no justice, no satisfaction, and no victory ahead.