Promising Young Woman, 2020, directed by Emerald Fennell — 2/5 Stars
Content Warning: Promising Young Woman addresses difficult themes including, rape, assault and abuse.
Promising Young Woman is nothing if not divisive and thought-provoking. Emerald Fennel’s 2020 Oscar-winning directorial debut has divided critics and casual movie fans alike, sparking a conversation around sexual trauma in an unprecedented way. The film’s title is a reference to “promising young man,” a phrase used in the courtroom to refer to the infamous Brock Turner, who sexually assaulted Chanel Miller in 2015. From this title alone, the film makes its goal clear: it wants to tell a woman’s side of the story. While Promising Young Woman successfully tells that story, thanks to some fantastic performances from its cast, its message often gets lost in its glitzy, all-too-bright façade. Full spoilers follow.
The film opens on Cassandra, or Cassie, played by Carrey Mulligan, hunched over and alone at a bar. Her arms are outspread, resting on two seat cushions, evoking some not-so-subtle imagery of a religious martyr. The film quickly explains, over the following 20 minutes, that Cassie is seeking a sort of revenge for her childhood friend, Nina, who died in the wake of being raped in medical school. To compartmentalize this trauma and speak truth to power, she pretends to be drunk, and when men take her home and attempt to violate her, she reveals her sobriety and gives them a scolding.
While this seems empowering in theory, it seems oddly convenient that few of the men – three that are seen in the film and an implied many more – react negatively or get violent. This is the film’s first seemingly unintended departure from reality. There is certainly an intentional surreal tone to the film as a whole; the soundtrack is an upbeat, pop-infused mishmash and the text during the opening credits is a pink, glittery font straight out of the early 2000s. But the way these men shrink away and become small when Cassie lectures them does not seem to be part of this deliberately unreal feel, especially in a movie about such real, traumatic issues.
This disconnect from the real issues culminates in the movie’s final moments. With the help of her love-interest-turned-villain Ryan, played by the strikingly funny Bo Burnham, Cassie tracks down Nina’s rapist, Al Monroe, played by Christopher Lowell, at his bachelor party, disguised as a stripper. When she threatens Al seeking a confession, Al gains the upper hand in an altercation and murders Cassie. At first, we think he’s gotten away with it, but soon it’s revealed that Cassie anticipated her murder and mailed a package to be delivered to the police before she left, with enough evidence enclosed to arrest Al. So, in these final moments, as Al is arrested at his own wedding, the camera flies through a “winky face” emoticon in a pre-scheduled message from Cassie to Ryan. The audience is clearly meant to feel an impact here; as the credits roll, a bass-heavy pop anthem called “Last Laugh” plays. Contrary to Fennel’s intentions, though, this ending feels empty. While Cassie may have gotten the “last laugh,” she and Nina are still dead, and it seems directly contrary to the films overall message, a message of how deeply systemic these issues run and how stories like these are wrapped up in a nice bow by male-dominated systems like the police. Other critical viewers may also point to the way that Cassie deliberately deceives other women into thinking that they or a loved one has been assaulted, which seems contrary to Cassie’s intended perception as a slick, unstoppable protagonist.
While Mulligan, along with her co-star Burnham, deliver fantastic and brutally real performances, neither can prevent the film from feeling unearned and hollow. While certainly a conversation starter, Promising Young Woman, in the end, says virtually nothing at all.