Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★

"I was busy thinking about boys"

Does liking the Toxic violin cover make me a basic bitch? If so, I never want to be un-basic.

One of my biggest concerns the first time around was that while I found the subject matter to be insightful, a woman would roll her eyes because there would be nothing they’ve never seen before. And I was right, the subject matter here is nothing any woman needs educated on; rape culture, victim blaming, consent, and men getting the benefit of the doubt is nothing new. What is new is actually seeing those topics discussed openly in a mainstream film, and that counts for something (or so I was happy to see).

So much of my praise for Promising Young Woman goes back to the same phrase: that director Emerald Fennell is able to have her cake and eat it too. She’s able to craft a satisfying revenge story that exists in the real world where consequences are real. And yet, even in that realistic setting Fennell keeps it heightened enough to allows the audience to take the oddities in stride. More than anything though Fennell pulls the rug out from under the audience to show just how unlikely it would be that a person like this could defeat the forces working against her…but still gives us a modicum of pleasure before the credits roll, to Angel of the Morning no less. No easy feat.

I was also very happy to see the script and performances hold up on a rewatch. During my first watch some awkward exposition stood out to me, but I barely noticed it the second time around because I was marveling at the brilliant script structure. Fennell pulls back the curtain on Cassie’s plan at exactly the right pace to let us believe she may be capable of horrible things, keeping us on our toes throughout and making us constantly question our own allegiances and sympathies. Also, Mulligan’s performance really is something special, and I’m rooting for her to win the Oscar (though pretending she’s nominated for Shame). Plus, Bo Burnham is not getting enough credit for his role here. The cinematography and shot composition on display is to die for, there’s something to marvel at in every shot, even if its marveling at how tall Bo Burnham looks compared to Carey Mulligan. That dude was right, he’s lanky.

Diving into the criticism around this film has been fun. More than anything I find it odd that viewers crave a less moral protagonist, instead of having someone in a revenge story that we can actually root for. A critique of the film by Ayesha A Siddiqi that’s getting passed around seems to imply that Promising Young Woman can’t “embody rage and retribution” because Cassie doesn’t murder her enemies, and that simply doesn’t track for me. There’s not one prescribed way in which a person can deal with their anger or trauma, and to suggest otherwise seems highly close minded. Siddiqi also seems to hold the fact that the film was fast tracked against Fennell. If you make something that says something important, it makes sense that production companies would want to get that into the world asap, I certainly don’t blame the creator for that.

(Ok and now I’m just going to write down my thoughts while reading the aforementioned Siddiqi piece). According to her a major complaint is that the film “pulls its punches.” What did we want, a Death Wish style shoot em up revenge story, or something as mindless as this year’s Nobody? Promising Young Woman stands out amidst its revenge story peers because it is simply much smarter and requires a bit of nuance folks don’t normally want to see in a genre that typically features more cut and dry tales.

Looking back, does it seem a bit tame that in the early scenes Cassie just gives her targets a stern talking to? I suppose so, and would I have enjoyed a Tarentino esque violent fantasy? Absolutely, but this isn’t that film, and the fact that I wasn’t craving anything else speaks volumes. Fennell gave me something tame, but there was still plenty of satisfaction to be had in that tameness, proving the strength of the script and Fennell’s mastery of tone.

“Does Cassie, who it’s emphasized was a top student, use her medical knowledge to punish those responsible with the flair of a future surgeon? No. Fennell says, ‘[the] thing with the revenge [genre] that we don’t talk about very much is revenge and vengeance aren’t good things.’” So again, disagreeing with our protagonist for being a moral person. Baffling.

The term “absolved men” gets tossed around a lot, and only one person is absolved, because he’s the only person who understands his crimes and feels genuine guilt over it. Everyone else is lying to themselves, but Cassie’s plotting reveals their true nature. No one else is absolved, everyone comes out exposed, even the ones who aren’t arrested. And though it didn’t stand out to me (which is a nice learning point on my own privilege), I can see how the use of the police in the finale would send the wrong message. It’s not hard to cut Fennell slack from a story-telling perspective in that regard though, I can’t think of any other mechanism our society has that could perform that function, flawed or not. To that end, Siddiqi claims that “in this film, it is the cops who rush in to save the day and deliver the conclusion,” but that’s a bit of a mischaracterization. That makes it sound like there was a cop on the inside doing some great investigating and swept and saved everyone. The cops don’t actually save anyone, but Cassie is able to use them as a tool to exact her own righteous revenge.

“The aversion to any violence against men doesn’t come from a commitment to reality.” I can’t help but strongly disagree with this point, the aversion to violence is the most realistic part of the film! Again, a Tarantino esque revenge fantasy would have been more satisfying, and as Siddiqi asks for in the beginning of her piece would have allowed her to turn her brain off and avoid the reality that “so much of life” presents us every day, but this isn’t that movie, and its poor criticism to wish it were something else (if you’re like Siddiqi and “would have rather seen the crow bar on the occasions men were trying to force themselves on her,” then you should have watched Revenge or something of that nature, but don’t watch one movie and critique it for not being something else).

“Her motivations are vague and unsatisfying. She is clearly grieving her best friend. But without the logic of revenge, Cassie’s actions are given neither meaning nor do they communicate a purpose” this is first bit of criticism I heard after seeing the film and it betrays such a lack of knowledge of trauma that I don’t know what to do with it. No one is saying Cassie’s actions must make sense, she’s doing what she thinks is right, simple as that.

Siddiqi’s piece is the critical equivalent of those Cinemasin YouTube videos, it’s just a list of events in the film and someone saying, “and I didn’t like that.” A lot of it is also comparing the film to its marketing and press, which isn’t fair to Fennell or the work she created, which should be evaluated on its own terms. Poor criticism all around, and the fact that this piece is getting such attention (I saw it retweeted by Adam Nayman, someone I think is smart but will probably disagree with on everything, and posted as a comment on this site) worries me.

More than anything I just wanted to see if my wife liked it…and she did, which means it is definitely a great movie, trust me.

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