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WARNING FOR SPOILERS
“Asking for it.”
“You’d think they’d know better at that age.”
“Where are her friends?”
“They put themselves in danger, girls like that.”
Already within the opening moments of Emerald Fennels’ directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, the audience is introduced to a gaggle of ‘promising young men’ espousing the typical misogynist rhetoric associated with women.
In an interview with Variety magazine, director, writer, and actress Emerald Fennell described the main themes of this delicious new revenge thriller as forgiveness, romance, and revenge.
Promising Young Woman follows Cassie, a 29-year-old woman in a dead-end job and little in the way of prospects. By day she works for minimum wage in a small coffee shop in Ohio and returns to live in her parents’ home by night—here however is her base for plotting her nightly activities as an unlikely vigilante.
Following the sexual assault of her best friend, Nina, when they were both attending medical school 7 years previous to the events of the film, Cassie has been embarking on a mission across Ohio to enact her own form of revenge.
“You’re not as rare as you think, you know how I know? Because every week, I go to a club and every week I act like I’m too drunk to stand and every f*****g week a nice guy like you comes over to see if I’m okay.”
Cassie’s weapon of choice is herself and her words. Her ploy to lure men into taking a long hard look at themselves and their behaviour towards women, as conditioned by society, begins with a story of a drunk woman that has become a cautionary tale for all women.
In Promising Young Woman, however, this cautionary tale is flipped on its head, instead used as a method of empowerment for our colour-clad heroine.
This is certainly a film for women by women. The powerhouse duo of the talented Emerald Fennell and Carey Mulligan work wonders in driving home the cautionary tale of letting sexual assault go unacknowledged and allowing both men and women a mirror to examine their own behaviour. Whilst Cassie’s character is a champion for ensuring male predators get their comeuppance, she is by no means flawless—and here is where Promising Young Woman is refreshing.
Although the audience is led to root for Cassie, they are still made to recognise that her method of revenge is unconventional and, at times, problematic. She bypasses bureaucratic justice when it fails Nina, for underhand, dirty tactics when it comes to enacting revenge and making those responsible for Nina’s and her situation feel the pain they felt.
This examination of responsibility is even directed towards herself as she voices regrets over not being able to fix Nina’s situation or be there more for her at the time.
Regularly directing blame towards herself and the other women in this film infuses Promising Young Woman with the refreshing perspective rarely seen in female revenge movies—that females also hold responsibility when it comes to colluding in stories of sexual assault. The same sexist and misogynistic comments voiced at the opening of the movie are repeated time and again by women who should have helped a fellow woman in this situation.
This internalised misogyny and victim-shaming are only a few of the myriad of issues tackled in this film. The film is littered with issue upon issue that every woman faces today—consent, sexual stigma, western beauty standards, drug abuse, sexual assault, and slut-shaming to name just a few.
Whilst the film is a champion of femininity, even as a weapon, with its pastel palette colours, typical ‘good girl’ image executed by Mulligan and pop queen soundtrack including Paris Hilton, Billie Eilish, and Charlie XCX, the story is still a hard one to watch.
Although Fennell’s talent allows the audience moments of irony and wit in this black comedy, they are usually framed within the context of truth. The film is truth itself when it comes to societal attitudes and how damaging a moment can be when it isn’t taken seriously.
The damage also comes with how palpable the fact of female danger is in this film. In the film’s denouement leading to an ultimate finale, the audience sees Cassie face her antagonist and the perpetrator of Nina’s assault, Al Monroe, in a remote cabin in the woods filled with drunk, middle-aged men celebrating Al’s impending nuptials. After a confrontation gone wrong, Cassie is killed by Al after not taking kindly to the accusations—and harsh truth—he was faced with. Perhaps the hardest truth in this film is that despite the empowerment and ultimate comeuppance of those who colluded in Nina’s assault, which then led to her suicide (as implied in the story) is that it takes the death of two ‘promising young women’ before a man’s crimes are considered serious and he faces accountability.
For her pains, Cassie is made into another faceless victim of misogyny and a corrupted system that favours the benefit of the doubt to save face rather than supporting vulnerable women. Following Cassie’s death, the audience never sees her face again in the remaining section of the film, however, she does get some dark satisfaction after her death when Al Monroe is arrested for her death (and hopefully prosecuted for Nina’s assault.) There is so much to be said about Promising Young Woman as a film, from the carefully selected actors to the carefully curated playlist. From its colour palette to its harsh mirror of truth. Ultimately, when it comes to the truth in this film, it goes beyond just Cassie’s story, but the truth of how downplayed stories of sexual trauma can be, simply because they make the listener uncomfortable. This film opens up discussions of consent and safety as well as how men and women can both be perpetrators when it comes to rape culture.