As far as revenge films go, this is one of the better ones I’ve seen. “Promising Young Woman” was one of my most anticipated films of 2020, and I’m glad to say that unlike most of the other things I saw last year, it wasn’t entirely disappointing. It’s also proven to be quite controversial. Film Twitter and cinephiles seem to love it, while casual audience members and even a few critics seem to be giving it a lukewarm reception. The negative reviews are, I think, at least in part due to some people not recognizing the type of film that “Promising Young Woman” really is. It is not the perceptive, nuanced drama about sexual abuse, sexual signaling, or sexual relationships between men and women that we all want and need. This is a revenge film with a highly stylized aesthetic and a broken character exhibiting sociopathic behavior. Cassie is full of grief, resentment, and spite; her existence is sad and pathetic. Anyone who calls this character “strong,” “feministic,” or “spirited” [which I have seen in other reviews] is missing the point.
Cassie’s sole purpose in life is to avenge the traumatic abuse committed against her best friend in college. We learn later that Nina took her own life due to the mental trauma of being sexually abused. Cassie seems to hold herself partially responsible and carries the burden of maintaining Nina’s memory, while most others seem to have forgotten about her. “Promising Young Woman” kicks off with showing us Cassie’s nightly routine, in which she dresses up provocatively and lures men into taking her home by acting hopelessly intoxicated. Inevitably, a strapping young man will gallantly offer to take her home, and she’ll mutter some slurry response with gratitude. The seemingly courtly man will suddenly get an idea – why not stop by his place for a drink? She’ll be poured some sickly pink liquid or offered some cocaine to loosen her up, and the next thing we know, that self-proclaimed gentleman will be trying to put the moves on her. And the next thing we know, she’s dropped the act and is scolding a “nice man” about his hypocrisies.
These men range from ex-frat douchebags to handsome young businessmen to anti-corporate hippies. The first thirty minutes serve to establish Cassie’s character, and it’s clear to us that she is a damaged soul whose actions we are meant to feel conflicted about. On one hand, watching her coax men into showing their worst sides is sickly satisfying, but on the other hand, her nihilistic and cynical approach to life is saddening and pitiful. Her notebook insinuates that she’s performed her act hundreds of times. It’s a miracle that she hasn’t been arrested at this point. It’s a bit ambiguous exactly what she does to all of these men, but it’s suggested that she doesn’t actually perform any violence against them. Emerald Fennell, the director of “Promising Young Woman,” sure likes to inject clever details that play with our expectations. The film is delightfully darkly comedic and has the visual style of a blunt exploitation film from the ’80s. The production design and cinematography are fantastic. There’s a neon nail-polish flair, almost a candy-like sweetness that often saturates the scenery, and that works as a clever juxtaposition to Cassie’s dark mental space. It also indicates that Cassie was once a delightful, vibrant character before the loss of her best friend.
Fear not though, because just as things look particularly dour, Cassie will meet Ryan, an old acquaintance from medical school. Their scenes together take on the tone of a rom-com: playful and fantastic. He gives us hope that perhaps Cassie will move past her feelings of grief and give life a second chance. If you’ve bought in to the premise of the film though, then you’ll know that this mildly awkward, childishly charming surgeon is ultimately going to turn out to be less-than-optimal. Ryan is more than just a fun love interest – he’s the catalyst who gives Cassie all of the connections and drive she needs to inflict her boiling rage against the sleazebags from her past.
The film really takes off at the turn of its second act, which is preceded with the Roman numeral one. The symbolism of this is vey clear if you’ve been following along. What follows are a bunch of poignant, well-crafted, yet frustratingly on-the-nose vignettes in which Cassie extracts her revenge. The great thing is that her revenge is not enveloped in gratuitous violence or feminist pandering, but what’s not so great is how superficial all of the commentary is. The film constantly shifts from compelling to sermonizing with dialogue that becomes as heavy-handed as a one-and-done punch from your favorite boxer. Some lines seem as though they were pulled directly off of a #MeToo Twitter thread. There’s just no subtlety, or even an intelligent analysis about sexual assault or academia’s leniency toward male students accused of rape.
The film was obviously influenced by the Kavanaugh hearings and the idea that American college campuses (and I guess bars?) are epicenters of rape culture…and the film’s conclusion seems to be that all men are terrible. It suggests that all men are capable of abhorrent behavior when given the right temptations. Granted, the film doesn’t let complacent women off the hook either, but overall, it’s incredibly lazy when it tries to unpack Cassie’s ideology and motivation. It takes the easy way out with pop psychology and a fervently utilitarian pathos that nearly removed me from the experience entirely. Fortunately, Emerald Fennell has some real conviction when it comes to writing an ending.
“Promising Young Woman” gets a positive review from me not for its cultural commentary, but for its immensely enjoyable dark comedy, quality craft from behind the camera, and the phenomenal performances. Mulligan is fantastic and deserves to be in the conversation for an Oscar win. She is exceptional at portraying a character who is mentally disturbed but puts forward a shell of wit and calmness. It’s difficult for an actor to simultaneously convey emotional baggage and steely stoicism, but Mulligan nails it. Bo Burnham is delightfully quirky as Ryan, and even in the more dramatic scenes, he expertly conveys a form of weakness that many men inhabit. I found Alison Brie to be particularly enjoyable in her supporting performance.
Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge give thankless performances as Cassie’s parents, and their role in the story is more important than some audience members may think. The most emotional moment in the film comes from Cassie’s father telling her after a dinner that while they missed having Nina around, they’re glad that they [temporarily] have their daughter back. The soundtrack is enjoyable but gives the film an inconsistent tone. It feels like Fennell had an idea of the songs she wanted in her film before she wrote it, and just adamantly kept them in certain scenes to stay true to what she originally imagined. She was more focused on individual moments rather than the experience as a whole. The musical cues didn’t pull me out of the movie, but they were very sporadic and distracting.
Alas, I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly discuss my thoughts on the ending, which seems to be the most polarizing aspect of the film. As I indicated earlier, I think the ending is appropriate for the story that Fennell is telling. This is a revenge film, and revenge films are meant to end in bloody tragedy (though often times they don’t). Revenge, in my opinion, is just a form of self-torture and selfish guilt, and torture is ultimately self-defeating. When Cassie is about to go full Lisbeth Salander on Al Monroe, he cries out that she’s crazy, and her reply is, “I really don’t think I am.” It’s at this point that she’s lost every part of her identity, and with a scalpel pointed at his stomach, there’s really only one way for this confrontation to end. The ending is also clearly meant to mirror the way in which many sexual assault cases are closed without any sense of catharsis for the woman. What I don’t like is the final scene of the film, in which Ryan receives scheduled text messages taunting him of the repercussions of Cassie’s demise. It feels like Fennell is having her cake and eating it too. Sure, it plays to Cassie’s irreverent nature, but it also feels so contrived that it’s an embarrassing moment to end on.
Although I said I wasn’t disappointed by “Promising Young Woman,” I also wasn’t blown away by it. I found it to be pretty predictable, unlike many others I’ve spoken to. In a weak year for cinema, it was simply refreshing to experience a well-crafted and genuinely enjoyable film that made me laugh. Though, oddly enough, it’s that sense of enjoyment that leaves me dissatisfied. The film is clever yet not smart; it’s fashionable yet probably not enduring. Is it appropriate for a film about sexual violence to be so enjoyable on a purely cinematic level? I would say in this case yes, since it falls into such a niche sub-genre. It’s also important that we be able to cope with dark themes in a positive way. But when will we finally get a film that explores the complex nature of sexual relationships between men and women? One that explores the sexual predations and hypocrisies that exist amongst both sexes? One that isn’t afraid to call out the party culture that exists on college campuses? When will we move past the banal cynicism and ignorance of Twitter trolls when it comes to so-called “rape culture” and deeming people worthy of forgiveness for past mistakes? “Promising Young Woman” wants us to think about these issues, but it takes the road more travelled by. I want something that cuts against the grain.