Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

If this had just stuck the landing, I think it would’ve been a near perfect watch for me. If only it had stuck the landing.

But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this movie for days. A personal experience came to mind. I was raised in the Mormon church, which like many Christian sects, has a fairly homophobic past(/present). About 6 years ago, I came out to my bishop. My main concern at the time was that I didn’t know how to reconcile these two very important identities: my faith and my orientation. Since I was talking to him from the context of being in love, he understood that at this point in my life - after having known me as a very devout churchgoer for years - it was critical for me to honor my orientation. He did not try to talk me out of it. He did not try to tell me to repent. He did not tell me to try and have it all by staying at church and pursuing relationships with women. He did not try to excuse institutional homophobia or tell me I was interpreting anything incorrectly. (I would go on to have church leaders say almost all those things to me.) He did what seems like the simplest thing: acknowledged that as it currently stood, the institutional church was not a hospitable place for people in non-hetero relationships. While he made it clear that I was always welcome to sit in the pews of his congregation (which I never doubted), he essentially gave me his blessing to leave if that felt right to me. Not in a “get out, heathen!” kind of way. In a way that acknowledged that leaving could keep me from further harm/trauma. As more time goes by, I’ve come to believe that his response is a big reason why - despite all the anger, all the frustration, even rage that I have often felt towards the church as an institution after I left it - my relationship to faith is not corrosive.

I've been frustrated in recent years by the church's PR attempts to cast itself as gay-friendly, and how that has trickled down to members believing the church is a nice place for (good) gays- completely ignorant of the church's vitriolic history. No acknowledgement of the church's errors. No accountability for their complicity in the rejection and suicides of gay people. A few days ago, my old bishop asked if I thought former members would ever come back if the church approved same-sex relationships, I told him that bridge is burned: "the main issue is that the people in charge will never, ever apologize or acknowledge past wrongdoings to my community. And so while people might move on, it makes reconciliation pretty much impossible.”

That’s what this movie is about. It is about acknowledgement of wrongdoing. It is about accountability. It is about how something that seems so simple is apparently one of the only things people refuse to do when backed into a moral corner.

I 100% understand viewers not liking this movie, and being angry at it. There are numerous reasons for legitimately hating it. In addition to completely fair grievances about directions the story goes, though, from what it seems a lot of people hated their experience with this movie because they were sold something else. So a lot of feedback I’ve read from dissatisfied folks springs from, essentially, “I expected [x] and got [y],” which would be annoying enough on its own for viewers but with subject matter this disturbing it goes beyond a breach of trust. The arguments then made against the movie are not in bad faith, I understand, they just feel a bit off because they are so rooted in misperception. It can be really hard to separate a film from how it is marketed, even if the creators have no say over the latter.

Folks were sold a rape revenge movie. Pop glitter aesthetics, bloody lipstick marks; it’s too easy to imagine a stiletto impaling a guy, right? Instead they got a movie that is not interested in executing revenge but in tackling the notion of accountability. It’s not interested in vigilante justice. It’s not about being an Empowered Girlboss. It’s not Death Wish with pastel nail polish. It’s interested in acknowledging wrongdoing on an individual and cultural level. What does closure look like? What is justice, and how is it best served? How do we honor the lives of friends lost to trauma? What is the long-lasting personal value of revenge? I can’t think of another movie I’ve seen that has so purposefully and thoroughly threaded the importance of accountability with the notion of forgiveness/repentance. It also feels unusual for a film to explore something like how trauma misshapes us without subjecting us to seeing the trauma played out. People want this movie to be empowering, which I understand, but that didn’t strike me as its intent. Instead it is a damning indictment of complicity and a testament to how crucial accountability is.

A lazier movie would’ve made Dean Walker a man. A lazier movie would’ve made Madison’s character a man. This movie forces us to reckon with the way women have been complicit in the silencing and derailment of other women. (In that way, it was really something to watch this so soon on the heels of seeing that Britney Spears documentary. Who - I mean, so many of Cassie’s hairstyles in this movie bring Spears to mind. And of course there is the haunting, devastating orchestral rendition of “Toxic,” which sets a tone and also has narratively relevant lyrics.) I want to add that everyone has made such a big deal about the casting of the Nice Guys that I haven’t seen anyone mention Connie Britton’s casting here. It is absolutely a purposeful choice to make a woman whose most famous role is a loving, feminist, protective educator a complicit university dean here. Britton just has one scene but she knocks it out of the park.

The film creeps into how insidious complicity really is and how far it goes. The Uber driver who hears Adam Brody talking to Cassie is complicit. Ryan, even performed as the kindliest gangliest sweetest guy by a brilliant Bo Burnham, pressures Cassie from the get-go: "if you're not into this, I totally get it,” he says after showing up where she works (Make Me Coffee) in the first place to rib her for giving him the wrong number. Given the chance to make a homophobic joke or comment, he nimbly evades it (clever) and tries, “Would you be into a friendship and I'm secretly pining for you the whole time?" Like the signs were there. Going in hand with complicity is an inability for those close to us to deal with our trauma. The shot compositions of Cassie with her parents often separate her from them, isolating her in a doorway as her mother thoughtlessly berates her and her father just kinda tries to stay out of everyone’s way. Neither of them mentions Nina, until Cassie has been freed to feel happiness and partake in self-care for the first time in, possibly, years, and her father tells her how much they’ve missed her.

Cassie’s happiness blossoms into a relationship with Ryan, but it’s key to note that he/being in love/having a boyfriend is not the catalyst for her change. That comes instead from two scenes back to back, with the lawyer who helped Al get away and with Nina’s mother. The lawyer is ready to pay the piper, he says, and quickly breaks down when Cassie confronts him. Unlike the Dean and Ryan, he remembers Nina’s name. He’s the first figure in the film who doesn’t deflect, doesn’t try to justify or rationalize what he did. He acknowledges his past wrong and is prepared to be held accountable for it. He already can’t sleep. He doesn’t even ask Cassie to forgive him, he just tells her, “I want you to know that I’ll never forgive myself for any of this.” Taken aback by his emotional repentance, given before she'd even had a chance to demand it, Cassie says, “I forgive you.” Following this, she goes to visit Nina’s mother, played beautifully by Molly Shannon. I wish this scene had been a little longer because it seems to shift abruptly in tone from joyful reminiscing to the mom being like “get over it, please.” Without so much as a hug for her daughter’s lifelong best friend. (They start by talking about Nina’s 16th birthday party, where a boy broke a vase and Nina dragged him by the ear to apologize to her mom - acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Accountability.) Anyway, the mom tells Cassie that obsessing over not having been able to prevent the assault is not healthy for her or for Nina’s family. Fortified by the lawyer’s ability to admit he was wrong and his remembrance of Nina’s name, she is then given permission by Nina’s mother to move forward with her life. So she does.

Ryan’s betrayal is all the more heartbreaking because she gives him so many chances to take accountability and all he does is desperately deflect while still having the gall to beg her to forgive and love him and tell him he’s not a bad person. Carey Mulligan’s performance has been brilliant throughout but particularly shines here because we hardly even notice how much she has softened until that scene where she confronts him in his office and the hardness is back in her voice.

Although it’s clear Cassie intends to attack Al, even then she gives him a chance to own up and he does not take it. When he asks if she wants money, she calmly tells him, “I want you to tell me what you did.” He continually deflects, rationalizes, justifies, instead. "You thought you'd gotten away with it because everyone had forgotten it. But I haven’t,” she tells him. She goes on to explain how trauma robbed Nina of the self-confidence she’d had since childhood. Trauma misshapes us. We’ve seen how it misshaped Cassie.

The much-criticized ending is a final warning, a testament, to those in this age of reckoning who think they can Get Away with violence of all stripes by silencing/murdering their victims/accusers. While I do think it’s a little tone deaf to have cops swooping in at the end of the day as if they will help justice be seen, I don’t see that as the final takeaway. Because it’s true: too often in our society, we’ve seen guilty parties face zero institutionalized forms of justice. It is only in the last few years that we have collectively forced even those who Got Away With It to face losing their jobs, losing opportunities like book deals, losing platforms for their vitriol, losing relationships for their abhorrent behavior or crimes. That is how Cassie, I hesitate to say, “wins”: forcing a public conversation with Al’s arrest that is going to bring his crimes to light, as well as the names of all bystanders like Ryan. The one scene of violence we are subjected to is the suffocation that kills her, and even that - as gruesome as it is to watch - is pointed beyond shock value: its duration reminds us of how much of a Choice Al is making repeatedly to silence her to death. Al’s lawyer couldn’t sleep for the guilt of helping him get off the case. But Al eventually is able to sleep soundly in the bed he’s handcuffed to next to Cassie’s corpse. The remorse he feels the next morning is not for having taken her life but for the potential fallout he may face because of it. His bro, like all bros do, offers only the chance to get him out of it.

I really don’t like that wink at the end. I mean, Fennell says she wanted a more “realistic” ending which okay, but you have to suspend a ton of disbelief for Cassie’s texts to Ryan to have timed up exactly with when the cops are gonna show up. The avenging angel is a little cutesy, but maybe that syncs up with the arrested development Cassie has experienced over the last several years. I dunno. It’s an emoticon, not an emoji. Still would not have been my first choice for a final shot. I may have different feelings about her death on future rewatches. I’ve seen scathing indictments of her bar-hopping as wildly dangerous and like all she did was give men a “stern talking-to” in situations that normally might’ve gotten her killed irl but I think part of the point of this form of vigilante justice is that she does not care if she dies. (What is the color coding of her tally marks for? Maybe some encounters ended violently. We don’t know.) That sense returned when she left for Al’s bachelor party. Her goal first and foremost had been accountability; in the case of these bars, holding up a mirror to “nice guys” to force introspection they weren’t getting otherwise. Like HUSTLERS, its also kind of counting on this kind of man to be too embarrassed to fight back or certainly report anything a woman had gotten away with doing to them.

There’s some dialogue that’s a little forced (particularly at the beginning) but I think the story structure overall is fantastic. The Insta-ready aesthetic/framing kind of plays in to the fakeness Cassie is drifting through, the facade/mask she lives in to survive. Like an unsettling, pinker Wes Anderson at times I dunno. The editing is seamless, the direction never slips, and every performer no matter how small their role is bringing their A game. I cannot in good conscience recommend this to everyone. I think it would be really hard to go into this expecting something so radically different from what it is. When I consider these viewing experiences I had - two days in a row - it’s not that I enjoyed it in a traditional sense so much as I really appreciated a movie making want to stop and take stock of what it was saying and how, how it was affecting me and why, the ways it was put together and why it was being interpreted how it was. I’ll definitely be coming back.

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