Content warning: This article mentions rape and discusses disturbing subject matter.
One of the most tired narratives in cinema is the rape-revenge story. Films like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left are infamous for their brutal rape scenes (mostly focusing on the rapist’s perspective) and spending the rest of the film getting justice for the victims. As of late, more recent movies like Revenge and The Nightingale have tried to put a feminist spin on the narrative but haven’t been very successful in executing it. Rape is rape no matter whose face is in focus.
Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, is another entry in this trope with a slightly different premise: a young woman tries to get revenge on her late friend’s behalf by taking on her friend’s burdens by herself. It’s a creative take and positions the woman in a place of power, but suffers from many of the same issues.
Promising Young Woman focuses on Cassie (Carey Mulligan in a career-best), a medical school drop-out with a double life. By day, she is a part-time barista in a coffee shop and an emotional burden on her parents, and by night, she is a vigilante who targets “nice guys” at bars. She pretends to be blackout drunk so a guy can take her home. When he’s about to pressure her into sex that she obviously can’t consent to, she flips a switch back to her sober self and teaches them a lesson.
This desire for justice stems from a traumatic incident that happened to Cassie’s childhood best friend, Nina, in medical school. It’s never explicitly mentioned how she dies, but it’s easy to put the pieces together when the details of her assault come to light. The closest that you ever get to seeing Nina is a childhood picture of the two of them. Other than that, she’s just a name—a painful memory that refuses to let Cassie move on seven years later.
Promising Young Woman wants to be a compelling power fantasy, but the lengths it takes to get there are rather extreme. Cassie uses psychological warfare to confront the individuals complicit in Nina’s sexual assault. She gets a former classmate (Alison Brie) blackout drunk to the point and sets her up in a situation where she may or may not have slept with someone without consent. She also “kidnaps” the university dean’s (Connie Britton) daughter and tells the dean that she’s in a hotel with a bunch of men she doesn’t know.
Her acts are undoubtedly shocking and make for good entertainment, but they are downright cruel and humanize the “villains” more than the actual victim. It’s hard to feel any justice for Nina when her classmates are more fleshed out than she is.
One of the more pleasant additions to the film is the introduction of Ryan (Bo Burnham), Cassie’s former classmate who has the eyes of an eager puppy. Despite Cassie spitting in his coffee, they start dating, and it feels like the film is finally beginning to let Cassie find her own happiness. And despite my reservations about the film, Burnham dancing to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” is one of the best scenes of 2020.
And then there’s the ending… There have been waves of discourse regarding the end of Promising Young Woman, and it’s a moment that definitely warrants a discussion. All I can say is what was trying to be something different ended up reflecting the problems of the rape-revenge genre: women have to be traumatized for them to get justice.
The term “nice guy” comes up again and again in Promising Young Woman. The men who take a drunk Cassie back to their house are “nice guys;” Ryan is a “nice guy;” and Nina’s rapist was a “nice guy” who was given a pass because authorities didn’t want to ruin his life. Fennell doesn’t beat around the bush in pointing out just how not nice these “nice guys” are, but her message gets lost in translation. Yes, men do get punished in this film, but they only do so at the expense of women’s lives. Is Promising Young Woman entertaining? Sure. Does it have a soundtrack that slaps? Hell yes. Is it essential in this current climate? Not in the slightest.