By Jessica Sutton.
This article contains spoilers for Promising Young Woman
Mainstream feminist movies are still few and far between. But occasionally, a film comes along that scratches a feminist itch. Emerald Fennell’s feature-length directorial debut is kind of like getting that itch scratched by an angry tiger. It hurts.
We haven’t previously reviewed a single movie on this site before. We typically talk about problematic themes common to genres, or issues with the movie industry. But Promising Young Woman deserves an article all to itself.
Despite the title of this article, if you have experience with gendered violence, I advise you to check out the plot before you watch the film. It’s centred on a rape and subsequent suicide, and includes a fairly graphic depiction of femicide. Proceed with caution.
After the rape and suicide of her best friend Nina, former medical student Cassie has spent years targeting abusive men. The film follows Cassie’s quest for accountability from the people involved in the event that derailed Nina’s career and ultimately ended her life.
Many reviews of the film do it a disservice by terming it a typical revenge thriller. Of course, in a sense it is, and Emerald Fennell and the rest of the creative team play into this. With the sexy imagery used for the posters and the trailer’s focus on Cassie hoodwinking men, I expected an enjoyable but uninventive “vengeful woman” narrative. After all, the tagline of the theatrical release is a tongue-in-cheek “revenge never looked so promising”. And for a good amount of the movie, it does feel like a darkly comedic exploration of a strong woman getting her own back. What distinguishes Promising Young Woman, is the sheer reality and anger brought to the role by both the script and Carey Mulligan’s characteristically flawless acting.
Cassie is unbearably angry. It’s uncomfortable. It’s also glorious.
Female anger is so rarely portrayed on screen. When it is, it is typically the subject of ridicule: the neglected housewife, the nagging girlfriend, the sassy best friend. But from the first few scenes where Cassie is catcalled, the audience gets a sense of the anger just bubbling beneath the surface. She stops, stares the men down with dead eyes. The audience in my session tittered uncomfortably. Later, she smashes the car window of a man who verbally abuses her on the street. Again, awkward laughter from the audience. Cassie isn’t presented as crazy. Her anger makes us flinch because it’s righteous.
We aren’t used to seeing women react to patriarchy with justified rage. Female characters are typically only allowed to be weak, to be broken, to weep, and ultimately to forgive. The archetype of the crying white woman is standard in cinema, and the harm of gendered violence is often portrayed in terms of sorrow. There is sorrow aplenty in Promising Young Woman. But Cassie’s anger is what drives her, and ultimately is what makes the film so powerful. What happens to Nina ruins her life, but also irrevocably changes the lives of those who loved her. Angry women are a potent force, and Emerald Fennell’s writing is a daring and delightful response to the stereotypical weeping women.
Nice Guys and Good Girls
The main target of Cassie’s rage is Nina’s rapist, medical school heartthrob, Al Monroe. I would guess that every woman has met an Al Monroe. Many men will be friends with an Al Monroe. Chris Lowell is perfectly cast as Al, presenting himself as a good-looking, sociable, and successful “gentleman”. In short, the last person most would expect to be a rapist. The casting and writing targets the rape myth that all violent men just look violent. That women should be able to keep themselves safe just by being smart, while somehow at the same time not hurting men’s feelings.
This expectation means that Nina’s rape, according to both women and men in her life, is her fault for being promiscuous. And Cassie’s anger with violent men is something she needs to “move on from”, because #notallmen. The myth that women have both the ability and the responsibility to flawlessly distinguish ye olde goode guy from the back alley rapist is mind boggling. We live in a rape culture. It’s reassuring to see more mainstream media that pushes back against the idea of a rapist as an easily identifiable “monster”. It can just as easily be one of your friends.
Similarly, Bo Burnham’s awkwardly charming portrayal of Ryan Cooper hits painfully close to home. The Ryan and Cassie romantic sub-plot gives some much-needed lightness to the first half of the film. Ryan slowly charms Cassie in the straight-white-rom-com fashion to which we are accustomed. Yet, in a superbly acted scene by Carey Mulligan, it is revealed that Ryan was present during Nina’s rape and actively supported the perpetrators. The warning signs are there, if we want to see them. Ryan is pushy. When Cassie gives him a fake number, he doesn’t take no for an answer. He leads Cassie by his apartment on their first date, hoping for sex even when she appeared uncomfortable. But it’s all behaviour that we are socialised to accept as par for the course in heterosexual romance.
Once Cassie refuses to forgive Ryan for his part in Nina’s rape, this dreamy lead man reveals himself as an active supporter of rape culture. We see a man fighting to save himself and his male friends over a woman he claimed to love. He insinuates that Cassie is suicidal and abandons all pretence of caring about her. It’s an uncomfortably realistic portrayal of men choosing to rally around abusers, out of both self-preservation and a misguided sense of brotherhood.
The script also highlights the complicity of women in gendered violence, an aspect that is often neglected in activism and media. We are introduced to two delightful worker bees for the patriarchy: Cassie’s former friend from medical school, Madison McPhee, and her former school Dean, Elizabeth Walker. Both women failed to help Nina and Cassie, and fell back on victim blaming stereotypes to justify their inaction. The film reinforces that this particular form of harm is often committed by privileged white women, who benefit from supporting patriarchy rather than standing with victims of gendered violence. There are winners and losers in a slut-shaming society, and these women want to be what passes for the winners. Cassie’s actions are aimed at getting both women to admit their part in what happened. The ever-present frustration is that they needed Cassie’s intervention to care about someone other than themselves.
What about that ending?
If you’ve seen the film, you have strong feelings about the ending. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve probably heard the buzz about the ending. As an audience, we are expecting our unbreakable heroine to take her revenge on Al through some imaginative act of violence. After all, we’re rooting for Cassie. Instead, in an excruciatingly long 2-and-a-half-minute scene, Cassie is slowly smothered to death by her best friend’s rapist. It’s horrific. It’s almost unbearably realistic. I do a lot of work relating to femicides, but I still wanted to run out of the theatre.
In the aftermath, the camera zooms in on Cassie’s lifeless arm hanging over the bed. We are begging her to move. She doesn’t. And the film gives us no time to recover. Al’s friend leaps to his aid, disposing of Cassie’s body in a fire. In one memorably gruesome shot, we see the perpetrators kick Cassie’s arm back onto the burning pile, erasing her humanity. In the final scene we have a slice of the accountability the audience craves, as it is revealed that Cassie has engineered the arrest of Al for her murder and Nina’s rape. But as we slowly realise that Cassie isn’t going to appear, safe and sound, having had the last laugh, the final scene still feels hollow.
It’s bleak. And it’s not how the film would have ended if Emerald Fennell had been less gutsy when she was writing it. The original idea would have been just as we expected – a classic revenge scene in which Al gets his comeuppance. Would I have liked to have seen that version? Absolutely. It would be cathartic escapism, and as someone who works in gendered violence, that’s what I need. But I’m part of a minority of very tired people who think about misogyny way too much. For people who haven’t given these issues enough attention, Promising Young Woman is a rousing slap in the face. Cassie walks into a house full of drunken men, some of whom have been involved in at least one violent rape. She knows there is a chance she may not come out alive. That’s the reality of being a woman. And that’s why Emerald Fennell’s choices are so excellent – she presents the fallout of gendered violence unflinchingly, in all its horror, to wake people up to reality.
Cassie may be the titular “promising young woman”, but the film does not limit itself to her story. As we are forced to watch the death of the character we have grown to love, she represents every young woman we lose due to gendered violence. The script leads us to think about how Nina and Cassie, in different ways, were consumed by a society that doesn’t care about their lives or futures when the reputations of men are threatened. And yet, it’s also a film about love. Love for other women. Love in the face of everything gendered violence takes from us. In a way, Nina and Cassie are together again at the end of the film, united against and rising above patriarchy.
This kind of media is powerful. Men are talking about this film, how it made them feel, how it hit home. Women are getting together to watch the film, crying together, airing experiences with violence for the first time. This is the type of film that can be made when women are at the helm of both the creative and production process. And we need more.
Image from Focus Features