dir: Emerald Fennell
A young woman, very drunk, in a bar. Three work colleague jerks notice, the way pack predatory animals notice anyone falling behind from the herd. They see vulnerability, and opportunity. They don’t know her at all.
One steps forward, so gentlemanly. He offers to get her home. Then he suggests his place is just around the corner. Then he pours her a big fuming drink, and tries to rape her, essentially. He keeps telling her how pretty she is, how special.
What he doesn’t know, until she asks with a clear, steady voice “What do you think you’re doing?”, is that she’s not drunk at all.
This seems, especially since we see her walking away the next morning seemingly dripping with blood, to be a feminist revenge thriller about a woman fighting against the bullshit patriarchal system, and the opportunism of men, but it’s really about a woman fighting against the tide. The tide is grief, a vast ocean of it, brought about by the loss of her friend in college, being Nina.
The tide, which you can fight against all you want, but never stops coming in, is also the implacability of men’s selfishness, and the systems in place that defend their selfishness, protecting them from the consequences of their own actions, and punishing the women who seek justice.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) knows all of that, but still needs to do something about it anyway. Since dropping out of medical school, she seems to have been frozen in place, like the décor in her parents’ house where she still lives, unable to move what the people around her think is “forwards”. They adjudge that what Cassie should want is marriage, a career, the 2.4 kids and an SUV. Let’s just say that doesn’t interest her. She desires societal change on two levels: on the broadest level she seeks to challenge and threaten the men who think they’re the “good” ones who nevertheless try to rape someone just because they’re drunk, and on the specific level, she needs to harm the people who hurt and let down Nina.
Cassie shows a level of disassociation, of emotional detachment staggering in anyone who’s not a contract killer or a CEO. She follows her path, does what she does, wreaks havoc (very correctly, in my opinion) on people who very much deserve it, but doesn’t seem to get much out of it beyond mild amusement. Also, and this works perhaps to show her as not being completely insane, the ‘revenge’ she mostly gets on people tends to seem far worse initially than it actually ends up being.
She is very intelligent, and very determined, and her plans show a level of complexity beyond what most people would consider healthy. There’s not really much question of that, because even though I’m sure the film sympathises with Cassie to the exclusion of almost everyone else, it’s not saying that she’s anything less than deeply traumatised, and also that there really isn’t much available for her in life beyond wanting to redress what happened to Nina.
A guy does come along, someone that she and Nina knew in med school (Bo Burnham), and he seems to be from a completely different movie. He’s the sweet but floppy haired charming nincompoop than thirty years ago would have been played by Hugh Grant or Patrick Dempsey or Hollywood megahunk Bob Balaban back in the day. He’s a pediatric surgeon, and ever so understanding and supportive and sweet and all that bullshit. He even sings along to Paris Hilton songs!
What’s not to like? Well, this isn’t his movie, and he’s not the main character. He may seem like Cassie’s ‘last’ chance at a normal life and emotional stability, and a man who doesn’t exemplify all the awfulness she knows they are capable off. But that isn’t this fucking film.
Even when Cassie seems to lose her thirst for revenge, it really seems like she’s got nothing else going on, nothing else to energise or motivate her, nothing else that seems enough to keep her occupied. And these people really do need getting.
The second jerk we see her pretending to be drunk with (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) not only keeps insisting that he’s a nice guy in between lines of coke and yelling at Cassie to make sure she stays awake, he also advertises the sheer level of his dude bro-ness by talking about David Foster fucking Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, and how it changed his life, and how it inspired him to write about what it’s like to be a white guy in contemporary America. For that alone she should have fucking gutted him. The terror he feels when she reveals that she’s not drunk reduces him to a mewling pile of puke that still feels the need to whimper excuses and insults.
It really does his head in. The shift in those moments, where Cassie reveals her ‘real’ mental state and castigates him for all of his assumptions, points to the strangeness of the whole scenario, not just the predatory nature of it, but the awful sense of entitlement behind it predicated on the idea that a drunk woman is mentally unable to withhold consent or even understand what’s happening other than compliance to the desires of the person that found her.
It’s really fucking strange when you think about it.
The other revenge track specifically involves tracking down the people she blames not just for what happened to Nina, but who made matters worse afterwards. That includes the dean of the university (Connie Britten), for whom Cassie cooks up a scenario that cuts through all the procedural bullshit that prevented justice being achieved for Nina, by making it personal. It’s all well and good to cover for a young rapist from a wealthy family, and to make sure his future prospects aren’t dimmed by an investigation, but if the dean’s daughter is about to find herself in a similar situation in which no-one will accept her word as to what happened, or seek to punish the ones responsible, well, it’s going to be harder for the dean to turn a blind eye this time.
Or the former friend Maddison (Alison Brie), who turned on Nina after she was raped, blaming her for what happened because she committed the mortal sin of getting drunk, but also not believing her despite knowing that she was raped, well, what’s Cassie going to do other than put Maddison in a similar situation so that she can see what it feels like?
What Cassie wants with some of these hits isn’t just some kind of visceral, cathartic revenge; it’s for them to acknowledge that they failed Nina, that they were wrong about what they said or did afterwards, and to suffer for it. Cassie may be stone cold, but she is not above mercy. In one scenario, when she goes after the lawyer (Alfred Molina), when she finds that the pressures of his job, defending rapists and destroying their victims in the courts, has destroyed him too, leaving him psychotic and unable to sleep, she actually decides not to go through with one of her plans.
Maybe she showed mercy, maybe she just realised that the guy was too far gone for any revenge of hers to have any impact upon his psyche.
This sounds like quite a harrowing film, and it pretty much is, but the atmosphere in most of the film, along with the relentlessly colourful and upbeat set design and always ironic soundtrack and song choices, doesn’t really let it be what it sounds like. Cassie is so disconnected from the world around her, so hollowed out by her loss of Nina, who she loved and admired so much, the other half of her soul, that there isn’t really a threatening feeling towards her despite her many dangerous situations.
This is not a gory film, but my best example (except for the ending) is what happens when Cassie seems to be passed out behind the wheel of her car. A guy in a pickup truck behind her starts beeping and abusing her, calling her awful names for no good reason, since he can easily go around her, and when he does he keeps abusing her.
She slowly gets out of the car and, after grabbing a tyre iron, starts calmly smashing the fuck out of his truck. But it’s not the smashing that freaks the other driver out, it’s her seeming calmness on the surface. She cannot be touched by the general male chauvinistic bullshit of this world – she is far beyond it.
The ending of the flick has the chance of alienating viewers entirely. There is much one could debate about how Emerald Fennell chooses to end this flick. On some levels, one could argue that it’s a thoroughly gutting ending, on another level, one could argue that it’s perfectly appropriate given what Cassie has been through, and put so many others through, and that it achieves, in a last laugh kind of fashion, the only justice that Nina and Cassie were ever going to get. I think it’s probably not the ending that the viewer would have wanted, but maybe it’s the one we deserve. Revenge, when it’s dealt out by Liam Neeson or Charles Bronson or any other guy getting “justice” for being wronged is generally a cheap, fascist form of wish fulfillment entertainment that says the legal system and the courts are no way near as satisfying as torturing and killing people you don’t like who did you wrong, plus it’s mega-righteous.
Revenge here, in Promising Young Woman, is ugly, self-reflective, gives the “villains” a moment of pause before they probably go on the same in life, brings no peace to the person seeking it, brings no glory or higher purpose to any action, doesn’t change the system, doesn’t change the incentives for male privilege and selfishness to persist and thrive, but does derail the perfect life of a young man with so much to live for, and so many more people to treat awfully.
Everyone is guilty in this construct. All the men, especially the ones who say “not all men” hashtag, and many of the women who collaborate with the system against each other to prevent being labelled problematic or feminist or human. The system requires them to remain less than fully human, with less than self-determination, because it suits past, present and future abusers just right.
Cassie knows this, but she doesn’t accept it, and neither should we.
I think Carey Mulligan is exceptional in this. Absolutely incredible. This must have been such a difficult role to assay, and she walks the narrowest of all tightropes in playing it. She does nothing to soften her palpable anger at losing her friend, and at all the people that made it happen, and that did nothing to help afterwards. There are a lot of heavyweights in tiny roles who all do incredible work, but Mulligan carries this entire film on her shoulders. There is nothing to make her more likable to the audience (I don’t mean she’s unlikeable, I mean it’s not fucking relevant, in the way that no-one cares in the male versions of revenge stories whether those fuckers are likeable or not), and nor does she hold our hand through this harrowing and depressing and sometimes darkly funny journey. The destination is a terrible one, but the system that treats women so terribly, the system being society, can be terrible too.
Promising Young Woman, taking its title from the description by a judge of rapist Brock Turner, lamenting the fact that he had to sentence him at all, such a promising young man, despite, you know, is a stunning, disturbing, phenomenal movie. Full credit to the director and Carey and everyone else involved who allowed themselves to look like such terrible, cowardly, monstrous people.
9 times we’re pretty much all guilty in some way out of 10
“You know I got a bonus for every settlement out of court. For every charge dropped. We all did. There was a guy who's job was to go through all their social media accounts. For every compromising information. He contacted old friends, past sexual partners. Oh you'd be amazed how easy it is now with the internet to dig up dirt. In the old days we used to go through a girl's trash. Now? One drunk photo at a party. You wouldn't believe how hostile that makes a jury.” – trust me, I know – Promising Young Woman