‘Promising Young Woman’ may not be the feminist flick you hope it is

Photo of Promising Young Woman
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Content Warning: Sexual assault, graphic violence, suicide.

This article contains spoilers for Emerald Fennell’s film, “Promising Young Woman.”

91% on Rotten Tomatoes. Four Golden Globe Nominations. Five Academy Award Nominations. Six Critics Choice Award Nominations. With critical acclaim comes cultural discussion, and audiences are lapping up the daring questions posed in Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, “Promising Young Woman.”

In its trailers and marketing, “Promising Young Woman” comes off as a subversive, feminist rewrite of the “rape-revenge” genre, where a (usually female) protagonist survives a brutal sexual assault, undergoes personal rehabilitation and exacts revenge on their rapist. Fennell’s film lurches in the aftershocks of a world after the #MeToo movement, examining the entrenched culture of misogyny that empowers predators and buries the harm they have done.

“Promising Young Woman” unravels the idea of “not all men,” a phrase which argues that there are “nice men” in the world who are not sexist or rapists. Instead, the movie creates a world in which it is all men — a world where every single man carries the capacity to do harm and enact evil.

To be clear: This isn’t the problem in “Promising Young Woman” — in fact, the absence of good men is one of the movie’s most fascinating parts.

We enter this world through the eyes of a woman named Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), “Cassie” for short. During the day, Cassie works as a barista at a small coffee shop; at night, however, she transforms into an avenging vigilante.

The opening scene tracks this routine: Cassie goes to a bar or club, pretending to be totally hammered. Her performance baits an unassuming “nice guy” whose efforts to help her inevitably mutate into a ploy to exploit her flickering consciousness. As he begins to take advantage of her, Cassie sheds her drunken stupor, and her cold, clear-eyed sobriety horrifies him. When she returns home, she notes her success in a notebook filled with pages and pages of tally marks — this isn’t her first rodeo.

To her credit, Fennell layers the film with clever, subversive casting. Most of the men in this movie are played by loveable comedy actors: nice guys such as Adam Brody and Bo Burnham and goofballs such as Max Greenfield from “New Girl” and Christopher Mintz-Plasse from “Superbad.” It’s genius casting as we watch the faces from our adolescence in a context where their familiar, endearing charms underpin sinister motivations.

The issue, however, is the gambit itself. When Cassie reveals her sobriety, she doesn’t turn to violence — she just leaves. It’s equal parts unsatisfying and unrealistic. Are we supposed to believe that a stern diatribe is enough to ensure her safety? Perhaps “Promising Young Woman” sought to revise the conventional violence in “rape-revenge” flicks, but we don’t even see Cassie with a weapon to protect herself, even though she’s in the company of a man who just tried to assault her.

Cassie performs this routine to cope with the death of her close friend Nina, who was sexually assaulted while the two women were in medical school. Yet, our protagonist centers herself in Nina’s trauma, which effectively edges the other woman out of the movie. “Promising Young Woman” focalizes Nina’s very personhood through Cassie, and as a result, Nina becomes a phantom — invisible and unheard. We don’t know if Nina would’ve wanted Cassie to commit these acts in her honor, but we do know that they provide Cassie with some solace. In a film critiquing the dismissive treatment of sexual assault victims, Nina’s absence from the narrative leaves a bitter aftertaste and weakens its central message.              

The film actually gets worse as more minutes go by. 

In the penultimate chapters, Cassie pulls up to the bachelor party of Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), prepared to get her ultimate revenge on the man who raped Nina. She’s dressed in a candy-colored, skimpy nurse outfit, disguised as a stripper. After entertaining the group for a bit, Cassie and Al go up to his bedroom alone. Under the guise of light bondage, Cassie begins to tie him up and carve Nina’s name into Al’s calf. Everything goes horribly wrong, however, when Al breaks free from the restraints. He pins her to the bed and shoves a pillow over her face.

The camera devotes an incredible stretch of time to Cassie’s suffocation. We’re not just watching someone die; we’re watching someone kill. Al’s intent never flickers; through its uninterrupted focus, the camera emphasizes that Al is deciding — over and over again — to completely destroy this woman. The next morning, Al and his friends burn her body.

In turning Cassie into a sacrificial lamb, “Promising Young Woman” actually sacrifices its right to masquerade as a piece of gender advocacy. Sure, Cassie’s martyrdom emphasizes how the standing patriarchal order will protect Al from murder charges in the same way that he dodged the sexual assault charges — but who cares? There are other ways to communicate the message. There’s no glory or feminism in the voyeuristic portrayal of Cassie’s execution. It’s indefensibly cruel to reserve the most grisly, brutal violence in the entire movie to the extermination of our female protagonist.

In the final act, Al goes on to have the wedding ceremony, but during the reception, police sirens ring in the distance. We learn that Cassie prepared for her untimely death: a pre-written schedule-send text message reveals that she has told law enforcement about these men’s crimes. This is retribution.

But why are the police the supreme agent of justice? The film’s ending is frustratingly tone deaf to the real issue of police brutality and to the logic of the movie itself. “Promising Young Woman” repeatedly emphasizes law enforcement’s impotence in supporting sexual assault survivors, so why should the sound of cop cars elicit relief?

Though it is only Fennell’s debut, “Promising Young Woman” exudes the same contagious confidence as its protagonist. With its candy-colored palette and star-studded cast, it’s the kind of movie that you really, really want to be good. Yet in the span of two hours, two women are dead and the audience is viscerally reminded that predators get protected and victims get silenced. “Promising Young Woman” is too reductive and contradictory to mark a victory for women. It serves justice on an empty pyrite platter — the same color as the coveted little trophy the movie hopefully won’t take home April 25.

Contact Maya Thompson at [email protected].