Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★

Watching this film with a group sparked a several-hours-long discussion about rape culture and how it affected each of us, something that few films about the subject actually manage to do and that I count as a win for this one. Most of the negative reviews I see on here (by people of all genders) seem to be directed at the inconsistent tone and hamfisted ending, both of which are absolutely fair to criticize. I'm gonna say my piece about why I liked this film, despite how often it may come across as on-the-nose or preachy, and why I think what it's doing is much more effective than that.

Promising Young Woman opens with an all-familiar sequence framing our drunk protagonist, Cassie, being lured back to a guy's apartment, at which point he starts initiating sexual intercourse despite her never giving (or being able to give) any form of consent. The sequence is at least ten minutes long and absolutely gruelling: we see the man gradually push every single boundary while we viewers, together with Cassie, are completely powerless to stop him. I know of at least a couple of people who wanted to stop the film there and then. However, all of a sudden, an adrenaline rush goes through you as you realise that Cassie is only pretending to be drunk: she regains the light in her eyes, composure in her speech, and she seems hellbent to take revenge on the rapist. Cut to an opening credits montage in the vein of many exploitative revenge fantasies with Cassie doing a "walk of shame" of sorts (although her expression is far from ashamed) while she eats a sandwich and a stream of blood-like ketchup trickles down her arm. What is missing from this sequence is the exploitation itself: we saw neither rape nor murder, we only get the terror of the former and the catharsis of the latter. In a way, this is the type of feeling that the film tries to extend, in one way or another, throughout its entire duration.

I also read reviews criticising the "girl boss," "Instagram filter"-type aesthetics, but I personally think that the film itself is critiquing those aesthetics by using them to needlessly coat the abject horror of rape and rape culture, before ultimately showing how the horror can't be coated. Firstly, we find out that Cassie does not, in fact, kill men, but rather she shames them into curbing their predatory behaviour. However, after many moments of triumph, the film shows us that her Modus Operandi simply... does not work. One of the men who tries to drag her home as she pretends to be drunk is friends with the one we meet in the very first scene. He knows what happened to his friend and how he got shamed and punished for it. Yet, he fully blames Cassie, calls her "crazy" and continues indulging in the same behaviour.

There is nothing satisfying or pleasurable about this narrative because, ultimately, the film is aware of the pervasiveness of rape culture and how no amount of sugar-coating or girl-bossing can fix it. Responsibly, the "empowered" (in huge quotation marks) protagonist is not the film's direct rape victim – she is taking up the revenge mantle in lieu of her late friend. Going against the grain in regards to its genre, Promising Young Woman makes us feel powerless, desperate and confused because there will never be anything actually empowering about rape narratives, there simply can't be. Part of it comes with the brilliant casting choices of likeable, handsome, "sweetheart" comedy personas as some of the rapists or rape apologists that Cassie encounters, all designed to lure us into this false sense of security and familiarity only to pull the rug from under us.

Admittedly, the ending of the film pushes things to a bit of a hamfisted extreme by switching the word "rape" with the word "murder" and recreating the same patterns of cover-up, denial and outright apology that we often see in rape cases. The metaphor is a tad too far because obviously there is no healing from murder, whereas rape survivors can always hope to make it out alive with enough external support. The "feel-good" twist comes across as clumsy and out-of-the-blue, and it can't undo the protagonist's irreversible death. In a way, this final sequence follows the same pattern as the very first scene: powerlessness, terror, then finally a sigh of relief. However, it's grandiose and unbelievable in a way that the rest of the film simply isn't.

I understand that the exaggerated feeling of powerlessness that the film gives you is, while realistic, something a lot of women simply don't need to experience in a film of this kind. I would go out on a limb and say this film is almost catered more to a male audience, who need to experience these emotions in a fictional setting in order to understand what women go through every single day. In a way, the film follows the same MO as Cassie of making men feel uncomfortable, ashamed and apologetic. However, when the script itself shows how Cassie's methods don't work, I'm wondering whether the director hoped that the film as a whole would pull off a miracle. Frankly, I feel like that's too much to ask of any individual piece of media. The best this can do is spark conversation. Although it's a conversation that we've all been having for years, we should never be discouraged from continuing it. I don't think this film is harmful to women, which would be the one and only red flag that would push me to dislike it. My very high rating is an encouragement to experience the film not as a revenge fantasy or a tale of empowerment, but as frightening, sad and trapping. I'm open to conversations on the subject, whether you liked the film or not.

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