CW: Sexual assault, murder, suicide
According to the very reliable journalistic source that is Twitter News, Promising Young Woman (2020) might “have its Joker (2019) moment,” a set of words that both disturbed and inspired us to write this review. We thought, sure, yeah, it might indeed have its Joker moment … as in, getting an Oscar it doesn’t deserve.
Emerald Fennell’s debut feature film Promising Young Woman begins by introducing us to Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a medical school dropout who lives with her parents, works at a coffee shop by day and fools unsuspecting predatory men by night. It is not until later, through bits of information released at different points of the film, that we learn Cassie’s main motivator behind her nightly “hunts.” The quotation marks reflect the disappointing revelation that, despite it seeming like she is murdering rapists and crossing them off a list, she doesn’t actually do anything to them besides scaring them a little upon revealing her sobriety just before they take advantage of her sexually. We soon find out that, while in med school, Cassie’s best friend Nina committed suicide after being raped at a party. Throughout the movie, we see Cassie dealing with this grief and trauma by seeking out the people complicit in the assault.
Now, we didn’t hate this film, per se, but we have many thoughts. Mainly, it promised something it never actually delivered — the perfect female-centered revenge film. All the ingredients were there: a star cast — we definitely believe Carey Mulligan’s performance was outstanding — interesting visuals, Bo Burnham and, from the trailer, what looked like a nail-biting, never-before-seen, gonna-make-this-our-favorite-movie-of-the-decade plot. In the end, we got 114 minutes of build-up with no release. The revenge genre in recent years has been characterized by Tarantino films, and while we do not consider ourselves enthusiasts of him as an artist, one thing that man knows how to do is give the audience some bloody vengeance. While this genre is not for everyone, there can be something really satisfying about gory, surrealist, borderline-absurd films that deliver the viewer an unattainable kind of revenge. A “Woman Murdering Men Who Try To Assault Her” type of revenge. Instead, we see the main character go through trauma after trauma trying to teach people that sexual assault is bad, only to get brutally murdered in the end. So there we sat, in front of our respective computer screens in our childhood bedrooms, left wondering, what the hell was the point of all that?
The visual style of the film — bright coloring, fluorescent lighting, camp outfits, you name it — sets it up to be something bold, something one would find in a dark comedy, a surrealist dreamscape that allows for vendetta, an alternate dimension within which possibilities go beyond the limitations of the real world. There were so many points where we thought okay, this dude is about to get his dick cut off, or something. Alas, all penises remained attached. Usually, when movies are set up in this daring way, one expects the plot to follow along with that, unrestrained by actuality’s limitations, with an aim to empower or at the very least bring up something new — not the dooming reality we already know and needn’t be reminded of. That’s not to say that any piece of creative media about sexual assault should shy away from portraying the harshness of reality; on the contrary, it should lean into and exploit an already corrupt system, dissect it and tackle the roots of its unfairness and then do something with that. We are no strangers to the genre of realism, whose main objective is indeed to display reality without adorning or exaggerating bits of it — but that’s not what the creators of this movie committed to in the slightest.
While we clearly take issue with a lot of the film we want to highlight two scenes that really rubbed us the wrong way. There is a scene midway through where Cassie goes to confront the lawyer who helped Nina’s rapist walk free. When Cassie gets there, the lawyer starts sobbing at her feet and telling her how guilty he feels for spending his life defending rapist-frat-boys, and Cassie ends up forgiving him. But why? We personally feel like someone who spends their life doing that should feel guilty. This scene does not read as Cassie being the bigger person, it reads as weakness or naivete for having preserved any faith in the criminal justice system. This theme comes back at the very end of the film when it is revealed that Cassie seems to have planned on being murdered and notified the police of where she was going to be. The texts Cassie has scheduled to send have a smug air of satisfaction. The tone, the music, everything about this ending seems to be telling the audience “Look! Look! There’s finally some justice being served! She got her revenge!” What? So if it isn’t justice (which it isn’t), what does that leave us with? If the film isn’t meant to empower but rather teach the public a lesson about the brutal reality of rape culture, it doesn’t get there either. Someone who needs to learn that sexual assault is bad is not going to learn that from this movie. What one is supposed to learn, apparently, is that the one hope that victims of assault have is … the police. Great one!
Ultimately, while Promising Young Woman had potential, it did not have the guts to carry it out — or to do it well, for that matter. What its trailer seemed to promise was male blood, but what we got is female suffocation. That’s not very #girlboss of you, Emerald Fennell.