Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★½

MARCH 2021 STAR OF THE MONTH: THE FILMS OF 2020/2021 (#5)

(Warning: spoilers ahead!)

Back in December 2019, I remember seeing the trailer for Promising Young Woman before Uncut Gems. Oh, I thought, that looks kind of fun. Fast forwarding to the way we live now - when movie theaters are a far-off reality for me as a New Yorker - Emerald Fennell's feature directorial debut is poised to receive Oscar nominations when the candidates are announced in a few days' time. The film's blend of rape-revenge fantasy, candy-colored aesthetic and dark humor is meant to be both entertaining and grimly thought-provoking, which may well be the case for some viewers, but all I can see are the flaws that bring the story down. As Kristen Yoonsoo Kim wrote, this is 2020's Jokette.

Contrary to what I originally assumed - that Cassandra Thomas's (Carey Mulligan, coolly impressive) mission to make men pay for their predatory behavior was rooted in trauma that she had experienced herself - the person whose life was most directly affected by sexual assault was Cassie's best friend, Nina Fisher, who dropped out of medical school and later committed suicide as the result of being raped at a party where several fellow students watched and laughed. That's not to say that Cassie, who dropped out of school too to take care of Nina, was not hurt as well; her grief over Nina's death has morphed into the rage that fuels her retribution. Every weekend, Cassie pursues a simple aim of vengeance against potential rapists by acting drunk at a local bar, catching a guy's eye and convincing him to take her back to his apartment, where he attempts to initiate sex despite her inebriated appearance and subsequent lack of consent. And what is Cassie's master plan for the patriarchy when she snaps into focus, making it clear that she is 100% sober?

She gives the man a stern talking-to and goes on her merry way.

Promising Young Woman wants to serve its revenge-filled cake and eat it too. Cassie is eager to make men suffer (and rightfully so), but she also stops short of murder - or even violence, in several instances - so that the "eye for an eye" mentality never requires her to stoop to the men's collective level. Is a tsk-tsk warning really going to mean anything to these assholes? In films like Abel Ferrara's Ms .45 and Natalia Leite's M.F.A. - the latter of which opened in American theaters in October 2017, the same month that the Harvey Weinstein's history of sexual harassment and assault was first reported on by the New York Times - the protagonists are raped themselves, which is brutal to watch, but in becoming avenging angels they stop at nothing to get their violent justice. That is why those films in those more typical molds tend to be cathartic, since the audience sees the arc of each main character's path from victim to heroine (or antiheroine, depending on your read of the situations). By making Cassie the vessel for Nina's pain, we are placed at a remove, and that distance makes it harder for me personally to become emotionally invested in her sometimes clever, sometimes messy acts of reprisal.

Another major issue is that Fennell's dialogue and jokes are all so obvious. Ooh, Christopher Mintz-Plasse's character is immediately identified as an obnoxious jerk by citing his admiration for David Foster Wallace, there's a shot no one has ever taken before. And viewers are obsessed with the film's incorporation of Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind"? I knew as soon as the montage started that Cassie and former med school classmate Ryan's (Bo Burnham) relationship was doomed, that it would turn out that he was somehow involved with Nina's assault. We later find out that he was among the jeering bystanders, the evidence having been recorded on a video that Cassie conveniently never knew existed until the events of the film. Not only was I not surprised, but I couldn't get over the fact that Burnham is a mediocre actor; yes, his charm and warmth make him believable in the scenes exhibiting Ryan's "nice" persona, but he can't sell the more dramatic moments in the story's second half.

Then there's the film's ending. Cassie commits the ultimate act of sacrifice by dying at the hands of Nina's rapist, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) - she visits his bachelor party in the guise of a stripper and intends to brand his abdomen with Nina's name; he retaliates by suffocating Cassie with a pillow - but she made sure to cover her bases by mailing incriminating evidence of Al's criminal activity to the police, who eventually find her charred corpse (his buddies helped him bury her) and show up to arrest Al at his wedding. Presumably this turn of events is supposed to represent a shocking and satisfying last laugh, but is it really a victory if the means to Cassie's end require her to be reduced to a pile of ashes? This is a film that needs to have more courage in its convictions, for the truly revolutionary idea would be to allow Cassie to have a happy ending, however that manifests. Wouldn't living happily ever after be the most delicious revenge?

I can understand why some viewers may react differently than I did to Promising Young Woman, but I also wonder if others who are quick to shower it with praise are saying as much about themselves as about the film itself. I can't help but wonder if some men who extol the film's genius do so out of guilt and/or embarrassment for recognizing more of their own selves, friends or loved ones (either past or present) in these varying depictions of toxic masculinity than they may care to admit.

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