Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★

Bad Actors and the Vigilante One

"Promising Young Woman" is remarkable for mainstreaming the rape-revenge flick by removing the exploitation in the exploitation subgenre. No gory murder, torture or rape typical of such body horror and nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture. The word "rape" isn't even mentioned, although there's no mistaking that's what's being avenged. What mainstream variations on this that had been made it seems identify with a father figure who enforces law and order on the bad-acting men. Hardly something that could be confused with a down-with-the-patriarchy feminist critique. The "Taken" trilogy, for instance, or even the latest "Rambo," "Last Blood" (2019). Macho violence against macho violence in the "Death Wish" (1974) tradition, perhaps, or if they were more arty one could recall "The Virgin Spring" (1961) or something. "Promising Young Woman," on the other hand, focuses on the female protagonist, although, notably, not the principal victim. Still, it's certainly no "The Last House on the Left" (1972) or "I Spit on Your Grave" (1978).

I'm sure others have and will want to focus on the real-world social problems such a picture elicits, as if the genre hasn't been around for decades--and really probably older than even when D.W. Griffith first began enacting his violent fantasies on Lillian Gish via nitrate in the 1910s. And, that's not to say there isn't interesting feminist and other readings of the genre, but it may be telling how far "Promising Young Woman" goes to avoid either the violent and pornographic or cathartic expectations of the genre. I'm not very familiar with body horror in general, either, as I tend to prefer my exploitation cheesy instead of bloody, but "Promising Young Woman" is intriguing in a vein that seems to go back to some of its women-centered revenge tales and is reflexively about that.

Basically, it's another movie starring an actress-playing-an-actress, and very well by Carey Mulligan. She was never the victim, but she structured her life since around playing the role of her late friend who was. She pretends to be inebriated at clubs, to be taken home by predatory men who try to take advantage of her, as they say. That's when she drops the act and delivers the lecture to the men regarding their criminal behavior that some seem to expect from such a movie. She also does this with the enablers of the rape culture: a gossiping fellow former female student who pretended not to believe it, the school's dean who similarly dismissed it in favor of graduating the rapists, and the lawyer who knowingly defended his client at the expense of tarnishing the victim. All actors in a sense, except they don't turn on and off the facade with such ready acknowledgement that they're frauds--tending instead to rationalize their evil deeds.

One or two twists in the picture I found predictable, but that's fine, as the point isn't to be some M. Night Shyamalan surprise; it's about the acting exposing the lie and the ultimate coverup of her friend's abuse. I also rather enjoy the temporary misdirection by exploiting the tropes of the biggest fraud of all genres, the rom-com. There's even the sassy black friend to encourage the romance, the meet cute, temporary breakup, revoltingly ostentatious display of affection to a Paris Hilton song in a drug store (to answer one character's question, much of this is ironic, including the score), and the parents who try to get their 30-something to leave the nest as if in "Failure to Launch" (2006) or some other cinematic abomination. "Promising Young Woman" is quite funny at times in that way, not to mention well edited and photographed, despite its disturbing subject matter. It does the same thing with body horror and faux feminist films in the opening act, as what appears to be blood on her as she walks the streets turns out to be food and as she stares down the cliché of sexually-harassing construction workers, and there's the reversal of the "male gaze" with the first shots on men wearing khakis.

I can see where some might have a problem with the almost anti-climactic final act, too, but remember what Mulligan's Cassie has been doing throughout her avenging. She's been inhabiting the revenge part of the character of her friend, Nina, by exposing the actions of those who acted upon Nina in the past. We don't see the "real" video within the movie that's a record of the crime, because that's not what this is about, or at least not entirely. This is Cassie going so into character, beyond pretending a drunk or stripper or even rape-revenge, to becoming Nina. It's the name she finally assumes, one half of a doppelgänger heart pendant. The "Single White Female" (1992) reference isn't too far off. Doubling, on top of the acting and genre engagement, further alluding to the cinematic artifice. Perhaps, even the chapter titles and the "Careful How You Go" title in book form reinforce this. Clever stuff, for what might be dismissed as mere black comedy and social commentary elsewhere, from first-time feature writer-director Emerald Fennell.

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