New Film of the Week: Promising Young Woman
I try to avoid reading much discourse on any new release tagged with phrases such as ‘groundbreaking’, ‘divisive‘ or ‘important’, at least before I get the chance to see what earns these monikers. But one article about Promising Young Woman struck me before its release here. Awards predictor site GoldDerby submitted a piece questioning whether the major awards bodies would "respect female rage the same way it does male rage", as they did with last year's Joker. A bold and insightful question, one that almost reads as a demand; a demand asked by Cassie (Carey Mulligan—truly excellent) throughout Emerald Fennell’s laser focused, razor sharp revenge thriller. Fennell and her team implore us to witness this rage, respect it, and most importantly (to those who must) to take responsibility for the root cause of it—otherwise things will never change.
We first see Cassie alone, and far too drunk, being ogled and belittled by a group of men. They joke that one of them should take her home. He does. She is co-erced, encouraged to go to his house, to drink his drinks, to get into his bed. And when he thinks he's got exactly the despicable, unforgivable thing he wanted, she sits up, and asks: "what do you think you're doing?" Cassie lures these men into believing she's intoxicated, vulnerable, and when the moment arrives that they have nowhere else to hide, she makes them see exactly what they are doing. No matter what she wears, what she says, they always see her the same way: drunk, alone, prey. Caught, these men react with shame, and anger, and indignation, blaming her or trying to pass the buck: it was opportunistic, a mistake, "You're crazy!" one yells. "No", responds Cassie. Promising Young Woman makes it indisputably clear with its long, almost procedural build-ups to these reveals: everything each man does is deliberate, prolonged, and conscious. There's nowhere to hide. Even bona-fide 'nice-guy' Ryan (Bo Burnham) doesn't quite compute his own actions. He may be aware of what is right and what is wrong, but it doesn't stop him slipping, almost imperceptible to even himself, from amiable, to sly, to indignant.
I won't discuss much else of the films narrative; it's a viciously aware thriller that builds to a holy hell of an ending (whether you'll like it or not—it's audacious) that deserves not to be spoiled. However, Cassie's story becomes increasingly entwined with a past transgression, and the operative phrase that pops up time and time again, always in defence of the perpetrator, is: "I was just a kid."
“I was just a kid“, says the promising young man who's life shouldn't be ruined by one action. I was just a kid, he says. She wasn't, he implies.
The inversion is in the title: why do so many people never talk about the ruined lives of the victims rather than the accused; the promising young women? Again and again Fennell’s script gives some of societies most harrowing answers. "It was her fault." "Why was she drunk and alone?" "Things like this happen." "I can't believe back then we thought it was funny." That aforementioned female rage: it's deserved, and it won't relent.
I've never seen a revenge thriller that feels as relevant, important, or even bigger than itself as this does. The target isn't really a fictionalised baddie, it's a real life system—it's all the assumptions, bias, prejudice, victim-blaming, slut-shaming 'should've known better' bullshit that gets tied to someone just wanting to seek justice, or closure; just wanting to feel safe. Promising Young Woman is the revenge thriller recoded into something illuminating, purposeful, and womanly; wearing as many different disguises as Cassie. At times romantic, darkly funny, thrilling, harrowing, switching between each without missing a beat and always just hiding the numb, real-world rage coursing through its veins. When you think of a revenge thriller, it's easy to imagine something grungy, male, and violent. There's a history of male revenge fantasy in cinema being a fawned over form of violence. One character even describes his view of what its like to be a man today: "a gritty, low-life f*cked up love story." Possibly one of Fennell’s sharpest jokes?
Fennell‘s revenge flick benches almost all of those tropes, in favour for something more real, more achievable. Here, Cassie wants the perpetrators to take responsibility. And here's where the two sides coalesce, where a female call for respect is met with male indignation and abuse: when Cassie is catcalled she stops dead, and stares at the men harassing her. This simple act to defend against her objectification turns them from giddy, laddish, to angry and abusive. Even the act of not being passive in such a situation feels like a transgression to them.
The men and women (complicity, silence, actions: all know no gender) that Cassie demands responsibility from intensely fear this—they lash out, the men especially, blocked and performed in such a way as to be unpredictable and reactive. We never forget there's danger in what Cassie is doing. But there's one moment of surprising hope, when one man does accept his responsibility. He understands his complicity, and regrets it. He accepts punishment with open arms and apologises, begging forgiveness not in a feeble act to escape represcussion, but because he has already allowed the represcussion to take hold. 'I remember her.'
Cassie’s revenge endgame isn't death and emptiness for those who wronged her. All she asks is for accountability; and that, apparently, (sadly) counts as transgressive.