Promising Young Woman ½

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

This review may contain spoilers.

Warning: lots of spoilers and frank discussion of sexual assault ahead.

Let me tell you something for those who haven’t watched the movie yet but are reading this anyway: Carey Mulligan doesn’t kill anyone in the movie. Despite the trailer, the marketing, everything that packages this as a feminist, girl-pop-blasting, pink-font subversion of the rape revenge genre, there is no true “revenge” in the film.

Perhaps this bait and switch is intentional. Cassandra (played obtusely by Carey Mulligan) is almost 30 year old woman living at home with her parents. We learn very very slowly through deliberate withholding of character and plot information that she had a best friend named Nina, they were at med school together, Nina was raped, they both dropped out of med school, Nina is dead (presumably by suicide, though never confirmed) and Cassie now works at a coffee shop, her doctor dreams behind her.

After Nina’s death Cassie spends her evenings some kind of vigilante justice around town, pretending to be drunk on dates or at the club and baiting men who prey on intoxicated women. She stumbles and slurs her words until the men inevitably reveal themselves as the disgusting rapists they are willing to take advantage of an incoherently drunk woman, at which point she’ll sit up, clear her voice and say firmly and clearly, “Hey. What are you doing?”

Spoiler alert: THAT’S IT. She doesn’t cut off their dicks and bathe them in pink glitter and marches them around town or whatever else the marketing seemed to promise - a cathartic, campy release of female rage. Nah, she just gives them… a stern talking to. (I thought the fact that the tallies in her notebooks were sometimes black and sometimes red meant that she sometimes killed them but nah. It’s just for aesthetics.)

And here is the first abhorrent messaging of Promising Young Woman. That we are meant to believe, in the film’s otherwise very naturalistic world, that Cassie has done this for many nights on end, quite literally putting herself in dangerous situations, and all she has to do to walk out completely unscathed every time is to sit up straight and say no in a firm voice. This is not just a horrible unrealistic thing to say about rape culture but also - I’m sorry - boring. Fennell underscores the moment where Cassie comes out of her fake drunkenness with heavy-handed, ominous background music, indicating this chick is psycho!! when nothing is actually happening.

To add to the unbelievability is that we are told Cassie does all this because of what happened to her dead friend, not herself. I’m genuinely curious on why Fennell devised a plot where Cassie avenges someone else’s trauma and not hers, but I will say it’s this relationship between Cassie and the off-screen Nina that’s the most unique. Cassie cares so much about Nina that she dropped out of med school with her and after her death goes around town doing the uh, stern talking to thing. I would totally watch a movie about an unshakable, complicated, codependent bond between two women and how we take on the trauma of a loved one, unable to separate it from ours.

…too bad this is not that one. Ultimately, the script doesn’t seem to be interested in Nina and Cassie at all, even though we are told over and over again that the two women shared an extraordinary bond. We learn nothing about Nina besides that she was at med school, she was Cassie’s best friend, she was raped and died. Her only recognized trait is her trauma, and the other bits of pieces we get eventually are ambiguous: “she was like a daughter to us” “she was good. She was the best.” In essence, she’s the perfect victim, a dead angelic white girl. We don’t know whether Nina would have wanted Cassie to do any of this, and that question is never asked.

But this is because Promising Young Woman isn’t about rape or friendship or trauma really. The thing that the movie seems to be asking the most interesting questions about is men. The plot-launching event of the script is when Cassie runs into Ryan (Bo Burnham, the film’s best performance), an old classmate at a coffee shop and begin a relationship.
A rom-com sequence (set to “Stars Are Blind” by Paris Hilton of all songs) depicting Cassie and Ryan falling in love stick out like a sore thumb in the middle of the movie in its tone and screen time. But it’s sincere, and motivated, and Burnham and Mulligan have real, cute chemistry. That would also be an interesting movie. How do you cope with loving men in a world where men are horrible?

Yet once again the movie doesn’t deep into the actual interesting question at hand, choosing to swim in the shallows of vague #metoo feminism. Fennell peppers the script with clichéd catchphrases (“it was a he-said she-said situation” “it’s very guy’s nightmare to be accused of something like that! / Guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is.” “I’m a nice guy”) that bring the story feel like a hollow response to the zeitgeist. There are other passing moments where its visual fancy uplifts the subject matter into something complicated, visceral and disarming, like Carey Mulligan dressed up as a Harley Quinn-esque stripper-nurse to attend the bachelor party of Al Monroe, the man who raped Nina. But even in that sequence Fennell never lets the campiness get to a place where we are IN the experience rather than being told what the agenda is.

But it’s in the final few minutes that Promising Young Woman becomes something from mediocre and frustrating to truly abhorrent. I’m not even talking about the brutal on-screen murder of Cassie by Al Monroe. When the movie killed off the lead and showed Al and his buddy burn the body to “Something Wonderful” from the King and I, I was honestly pretty captivated, I thought the movie was saying something about the powerlessness of individuals trying to get justice for a societal wrong, and that felt like a very horrifying and grotesque way to accomplish it, but okay…..

BUT NO. THE MOTHERFUCKING COPS SHOW UP. THAT’S RIGHT. Cassie (who somehow kinda knew she was going to get murdered??) sends the video of Nina’s rape to Al Monroe’s former lawyer (who she was going to kill but changed her mind because he said he felt bad about what he did??) with Al’s address. She also schedules cheeky terrifying messages to Ryan like (“Enjoy the wedding ;)”) The fucking SYSTEM, who for the whole movie we are told, FAILED Nina. I’m yelling now, because how can you have done an iota of research about rape in academic institutions, or rape in general and choose to make the MOTHERFUCKING POLICE, the SYSTEM, the Deus Ex Machina of a supposedly “feminist” movie. And if the intention was not to make it feel like a victory, well, it failed. Everything from the acting to the cinematography to the editing to the soundtrack to the colors to the final close up on the winky face tells me that we are supposed to find this cathartic, that Cassie and Nina got some sort of justice from the beyond. Plus, arguably, Al Monroe killed Cassie in self-defense, he’ll probably get off, the other groomsman who helped him hide the body doesn’t even get arrested.

It seems that Promising Young Woman can’t decide if it wants to be The Hunting Ground or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (with a heavy splash of Sofia Coppola.) I think the premise for this movie is interesting and it could have been something very visceral but I don't think it's a very brave movie, it doesn't dive deep into the ugliness of the very very dark things of its subject matter, it doesn't let us in that way, it comes across as hollow, candy-coated, appropriative of the very things it's talking about.

Giving it half star bc Bo Burnham was good

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