PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is a black comedy I heard some good things about and had been wanting to see for a while and then right around the time it came out on disc it got nominated for best picture, director, original screenplay, actress and editing Oscars. Okay – didn’t know it was gonna be that kind of party, but I’m down.
The movie opens in a bar as three co-worker bros talk shit. One of them (Adam Brody, JENNIFER’S BODY) seems like the nice one, standing up for a female co-worker the other guys are complaining about, and seeming unimpressed by their sexist horndog talk. And of course when they spot Cassie (Carey Mulligan, DRIVE [the Refn one, not the Dacascos one]) so plastered she can barely sit upright on a bench, he’s the one who goes over and tries to make sure she’s okay.
Put quotes on that last phrase. We all kinda know where this is going: he offers her a ride home, playing it like hey, I know what this looks like, but I’m just trying to make sure she gets home safe before some jerk comes along. But the next thing you know it’s why don’t you come up to my apartment and let’s have a drink (!?) and then he’s on top of her taking her clothes off while she asks him what he’s doing and he keeps telling her it’s okay, she’s safe.
And actually she is fairly safe, because as she reveals when she sits up, she’s completely sober. She just has this hobby of faking drunk to see what assholes try to take advantage of her, and then shame them when they do. Try to scare them out of doing it again. Just a weird vigilante crusade of hers.
Of course there is a specific traumatic incident that led to this. That story comes to us in pieces. What we can put together pretty quick is that Cassie once went to medical school, but dropped out after her childhood best friend Nina was raped by a popular student, the school and other students didn’t believe her, and Nina died. Ten years later Cassie still lives with her parents (Clancy Brown [PET SEMATARY II] and Jennifer Coolidge [BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS]) in suburban Ohio, just working at a little coffee shop for her nice boss Gail (Laverne Cox, CHARLIE’S ANGELS).
That’s all fine, nobody is required to be a doctor, but she’s clearly unhappy with this life and her parents (who for a while we only see sitting at the dinner table) don’t need to know about her nocturnal vigilante adventures to worry about her.
Then something happens that brings back the past but has potential to move her forward: a guy she knew at school, Ryan (Bo Burnham, standup comedian and director of EIGHTH GRADE), comes in to buy coffee, remembers her, and asks her out. He’s tall and charming, is not put off by her weird humor, and can come back at her even weirder. He’s a successful pediatric surgeon, and seems puzzled but not judgmental about Cassie quitting medicine. He’s completely oblivious to why Cassie dropped out – in fact, when he catches her up on the current activities of people she might remember from school he mentions people who seem to have had some hand in what happened to Nina. Many red flags there, but he’s so sweet and self-deprecating, and maybe she’s just using him for intel anyway.
Hearing from Ryan how great all her old schoolmates are doing, Cassie switches her approach from DEATH WISH (where Kersey would walk in the park at night hoping some motherfucker would try to mug him) to DEATH WISH II (where he went after the specific attackers of his loved ones). She arranges to have lunch with Madison McPhee (Alison Brie, SCREAM 4) – isn’t that a good name for the perky girl you can’t stand? – a former friend who didn’t believe Nina. She’s still defensive about it when the topic comes up, so Cassie enacts a plan to get her drunk and make her see what it’s like to wake up not sure what happened. Things escalate like that, with increasingly extreme plots against other figures like the rapist’s lawyer (Alfred Molina, SPECIES) and the dean of the school (Connie Britton, AMERICAN ULTRA).
I think this is a comparison people only ever use for teen movies, but the movie it reminds me most of is HEATHERS. Similar to Veronica Sawyer’s scheme to avenge her cruel popular friends (at least before J.D. pushes them too far), Cassie’s plots are extreme behavior with an entertaining aspect of fantasy wish fulfillment. We know it’s wrong and of course it keeps getting more wrong, but also this is fiction and the simulated comeuppance is fun while it lasts. Cassie’s targets are actually more deserving of punishment, and she doesn’t go as far with them (again, considering that Veronica’s boyfriend turned her pranks into a murder spree). But writer/director Emerald Fennell leaves us in the dark about what Cassie is up to and some of the specifics of what goes down so that we’ll always be unsure of how far she’ll take things.
Another more abstract similarity to HEATHERS is its sort of candy-colored pop sensibilities that make it feel simultaneously upbeat and bitterly sarcastic. It has the courage (or recklessness) to explore this very upsetting topic with humor, style and ironic needle drops. In REALITY BITES, Winona and friends sang along to “My Sharona” in a mini-mart as a shared generational experience. In PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN it’s a song by Paris Hilton. I didn’t know that one, but I did pick up on the score by Anthony Willis (additional music, MONSTER TRUCKS) interpolating “Toxic” by Britney Spears. That was great.
But it doesn’t follow the template of HEATHERS or another existing movie I know of. There’s a section where it straight up turns into a sweet romantic comedy for a while, and it’s nice. Of course, it’s sweet with an underlying tension of the shoe that’s likely to drop, since finding true love is not guaranteed, or even likely, in a movie like this.
Mulligan and her character are truly great. It’s such a layered performance – Cassie is profoundly broken, furiously angry, also wryly funny, cool, fun to hang out with on a good day. She can be vulnerable and relatable, she can also turn scary and predatory, take it too far, but still be easy to root for. (Also she gets to wear many outfits and be fake drunk.)
The title is perfect because both Cassie and Nina were that promising young woman until an asshole, and his friends, and the failures of the school and the justice system, discarded them. The people and systems on that list all felt it was the promise of a young man that had to be protected. It brings to mind an infamous 2016 case where a Stanford student at least was convicted for raping an unconscious woman, but the judge only gave him six months and his clueless father complained in a statement that, “His life will never be the one he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 years of life.”
In the movie, as in many real cases, they chose to protect the rapist and blame the victim. Almost everyone involved besides Cassie went on with their lives, tried to fulfill their own promise, almost completely forgot what happened, telling themselves lies about it, some of them with the audacity to not even realize what they did. We may somewhat share Cassie’s perverse pleasure in making them squirm by abruptly interrupting their comfort with this subject that has taken over her whole life and that it turns out they don’t even quite remember. Or don’t want to admit they do.
Fennell navigates the complex tone just right, representing the system with a perfect selection of douchebag guys, from the seemingly nice to the humorously over-the-top (Christopher Mintz-Plasse – I don’t think I’ve seen him since the FRIGHT NIGHT remake) to the authentically bro-y (Chris Lowell, GLOW; Max Greenfield, THE BIG SHORT). Brie finds a great balance between self-absorbed asshole and finding a little sympathetic, and Molly Shannon (LAWNMOWER MAN 2) has a very small but effective dramatic role.
I think it’s perfect that Cassie’s revenge ends up circling around a bachelor party (the ultimate forum for boys-will-be-boys debauchery) and a wedding, where you can see a full portrait of someone through all their asshole college buddies standing in one place, wearing suits and joking about how wild they used to be together. Also, nature’s most perfect vehicle for an unhappy person to feel someone else’s happiness and success rubbed in their face.
I think this is a movie very deserving of awards consideration, and also that I never would’ve guessed would get any. Especially best picture! Seems to me last year’s efforts to add more young people to the Academy voting body is already paying off. This is the first feature from Fennell, but she’s already established as an actress (she’s on Call the Midlife and The Crown and stuff), a showrunner on Killing Eve, and a novelist. She is now, of course, signed up to do a super hero thing. But good for her if that’s what she wants to do.
In most ways PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is surprisingly audience friendly for what could accurately be called a rape revenge thriller. It has little to nothing in common with I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE or even REVENGE. It doesn’t make us witness the event – it begins way after the fact. And it employs that dark humor that provides catharsis rather than only dwelling on the brutality of the subject matter, or even the vengeance. We get the idea that this revenge is empty without her having to turn into a complete monster, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT style. But all that lulled me into a level of comfort that allowed it to catch me off guard with something pretty upsetting. So let that be a warning to sensitive viewers and also a preamble to the fact that I’m gonna go into some HEAVY DUTY ENDING SPOILER DISCUSSION to wrap up here. So if you haven’t seen it yet, this is the end of the review. Thanks for reading! If you have seen it, please continue.
HEAVY SPOILER DISCUSSION – DO NOT BREACH
If you’re reading this then you’ve already seen the movie, so you know the upsetting part that caught me off guard is the fact that she gets killed! Obviously it’s adding a little cold truth to the proceedings, acknowledging that confronting these rapists puts her in physical danger. This guy already got away with his crime ten years ago, he tells himself it wasn’t his fault, he’s a good guy, he’s grown, he’s on the verge of a happy life with the woman of his dreams and the fucking night before, seemingly out of the blue, this person he completely forgot existed is confronting him with what he’s done, threatening to take it all away from him, and in a pretty crazy way. So he feels entitled and desperate and he fights back and it’s long and painful and horrible.
Just because it’s realistic doesn’t mean you gotta do it. Do we, the audience, need this kind of gutpunch? When it happened, I was leaning no. It felt like too much. But then the movie continued. We get to see Al and Ryan and friends squirm as they try to pretend everything is fine and have fun at a wedding while the pieces of the late Cassie’s plan fall into place like a Jigsaw trap. Or like the end of THE DEPARTED. And it sold me. Then I loved it. I like when movies can pull off a novelistic kind of structure where the situation or the characters can be switched up unexpectedly. Think PSYCHO, for example. And my reaction to it reminded me of Brian DePalma’s FEMME FATALE. There are many plot twists in that movie and the climactic one is particularly ludicrous, so when it happened I thought, “Oh no, now you’ve done it, I was loving this and now you overplayed your hand and you ruined the whole thing.” And then the movie kept going and it explained itself and it convinced me. No, you were right, FEMME FATALE. I should’ve trusted you.
By the way, I took it as a suicidal act on Cassie’s part – that she chose to die to bring down these motherfuckers. Further reading tells me that was not Fennell’s intent – she says this was Cassie’s backup plan set up in case things went wrong. What I found kind of shocking is that Fennell only added that ending because the financers said no to her original plan: to end on Cassie’s body burning! She told Variety “in my heart, I think that’s where it would have ended.”
I kinda think a conclusion that harsh would’ve prevented all these nominations, but more importantly I just don’t think I would’ve liked it. That might go down with GET OUT (and CLERKS I suppose?) in the annals of thank-god-they-thought-better-of-it original endings. If this version where the world is still shit and she’s horribly smothered to death but she at least gets a small amount of payback is a bullshit Hollywood ending, then it’s my kind of bullshit Hollywood ending.