This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
James Westbrook’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
We did it, y'all; a movie I'm so conflicted about I don't feel comfortable giving it a star rating. It's not that Promising Young Woman is so dense or difficult that I'm having troubling parsing it, it's more that I think there are major gaps between how emotionally effective it is and how effective it is ideologically/thematically. If we were just going off immediate emotional response this would likely be 4 stars, and if one takes this as a piece of female-focused pop art that just happens to be engaging with sexual assault it works like gangbusters, but the more I dig into it, the less I think it holds up beyond that exterior shell.
For one, there's the pretty popular take that this is a subversion of the rape-revenge thriller, and while I think that's kind of right, I also think it ignores all the ways in which Promising Young Woman splinters off from being a genre riff, such as its broad focus on the Cassandra-Ryan romance, or the unnecessarily twisty final act, or the fact that aesthetically this has far more in common with a modern-era pop movie riff than a thriller throwback (Ms. 45 had nowhere close to this many ironic needle drops). However, I think in one crucial way it is a subversion of that genre, and that's in the methods Cassandra uses to take her revenge. In a traditional RRT the protagonist would meet violence with violence, but in Promising Young Woman Cassandra enacts revenge by challenging people's biases. That's certainly a less ethically dubious strategy than, you know, murder, and despite all the hand-wringing Promising Young Woman does about Cassandra's methods in the second act (Molly Shannon and others telling Cassandra "You have to stop this!"), nothing Cassandra does is actually that bad. Except for the final gotcha on Al Monroe, all she's really doing is elaborately freaking people out in order to prove to them how shitty and deluded they really are.
And I get the appeal of that! It's a revenge fantasy for people who have no desire to met violence out on others, but rather wish simply to be heard and believed when they speak their mind. Which is very noble, but I'm iffy about the way Promising Young Woman approaches it on two fronts: for one, I think it logistically makes almost no sense. The idea that Cassandra could give a gotcha-lecture to the number of men the film implies she has without a single one of those encounters turning violent is absurd. I recognize that Promising Young Woman's whole point is that men who prey on inebriated women are huge cowards (true!), but in the instances where we see Cassandra go through the whole routine, the men are reduced to cowering in the face of Cassandra's incredible argumentative prowess as they blubber and throw out generic deluded-abuser catch phrases ("You're not even that hot!" "I'm a nice guy!" "I was a kid!", etc). My issue isn't that the film is stereotyping, because fuck those guys, but that it seems to treat Cassandra's arguments as so overwhelmingly true and rad that they completely steamroll over the inherent power imbalance present in assault situations. It has a strong "when they go low, we go high" feeling to it, the idea that if you're just morally right enough the other side will learn their lesson and play along.
Beyond the fact that I just don't think that's true (to name a non-abuse example: The last twenty years of the Republican party not deradicalizing after Democrats came at them with sound logic and good intentions), it also doesn't make that much sense, in that, again, she's done this to what, like a hundred men? And they all just cowered and learned their lesson? Even if we ignore those logistic issues (and I'm not sure we should), what really bothers me is that those early scenes feel like they designed specifically to deliver talking points that any one who would watch this would already agree with. It's very preaching-to-the-choir, and doesn't really tell us anything about Cassandra as a person beyond the fact that she's very mad, very cool, and very right.
Promising Young Woman is obsessed with being right, with making sure we know, really know, that Cassandra is being ethically just, and man it really overstates that point. The Al Monroe encounter is a great example, as in many ways it acts as a counterargument to the violence argument I made above, in that Al is actively violent in his encounter with Cassandra. Which is why it's so weird that the film tries so hard to make Cassandra morally exemplary by having her martyr herself instead of letting her wade into a grey area, as even beyond the fact that "trick your abuser into murdering you so they get sent to jail" isn't great advice for assault victims, I also don't see how it's that cathartic for Cassandra. Obviously many folks disagree and I respect that, but I think the Al situation is one where meeting violence with violence actually would have been ethically just; dude sucks and deserves justice. The film, though, seems to be convinced of the idea that only completely non-violent solutions are ever justifiable, and I just... don't know if that's right. Even if Cassandra's choice is the most ethically righteous revenge option, I think it's super fucking weird that the movie treats getting murdered as an act of empowerment. I know Promising Young Woman is a revenge fantasy predicated on the fact that the world often doesn't believe women, and that real justice can only come when society as a whole actually believes victims and punishes abusers instead of always giving abusers the benefit of the doubt (and to its credit the film states all of that pretty directly), but even within that framework I don't think Cassandra's life is worth the ethical points she wins for not hurting Al. By extension I don't think the ethical points the film gains by not endorsing any forms of violence are worth the damage it does to its own internal consistency. I think art's place here would be to push that line and ask those questions about what is/isn't justified, and the "Woaaaaaaah!" quality of the twist ending only papers over those deeper issues that Promising Young Woman doesn't engage with by idolizing Cassandra even further than the film already has.
BUT ON THE OTHER HAND, a lot of my arguments against Promising Young Woman are based on its lack of connection to the real world, and I think it's very fair to point out that it isn't under an obligation to be realistic, and that it exists to be cathartic and relatable and to subvert mainstream expectations. Which it does! Carey Mulligan's performance does wonders to take this out of the realm of the theoretical and give actual human stakes to this story, and the greatest counterargument I can give to everything I said above is that Promising Young Woman isn't "about" any of that heady thematic shit, it's "about" Cassandra and her attempts to reckon with the incredibly imbalanced scales of our society and the horrors she's been asked to deal with simply for being a woman. Questions of ethics are secondary to the costs of abuse that Promising Young Woman gives a human face to. Even if it's somewhat of a thematic muddle it's emotionally sharp work that comes from a real place, and it deserves all the praise its gotten for that.
(ANYWAY, on a personal note, I swear this is the season finale of "James writes too many words dissecting the flaws of buzzy 2020 movies." Catch me in my next review when I write a single paragraph on Kajillionare that basically just amounts to "I liked it.")