Editor’s note: this article contains heavy spoilers for Promising Young Woman, please read with discretion. Trigger warning for assault. If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this piece, find out more about the support available.
You’ll have heard about Promising Young Woman long before you come round to watch it for the first time. There’s little to suggest that this enigmatic narrative is Emerald Fennell’s feature-length directorial debut. Such an accomplished film looks and feels to be the result of years of experience, yet here we are with a truly important breakout film. You’ll know her as Camilla in The Crown, but it’s Fennell’s time writing for Killing Eve and her 2018 short Careful How You Go (a pastel book cover in the cafe, a nod to this predecessor) that exert the most influence here.
Moving in the same circles as Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, it’s easy to see how the womens’ mutual influence as female voices seeking justice in a broken society could work in tandem. In both Fleabag and Promising Young Woman, Waller-Bridge and Fennell explore a woman’s downfall through her surviving friend, grief turning them into something unrecognisable. And indeed the character of Cassie (a peerless Carey Mulligan), a med-school dropout traumatised by the loss of her best friend Nina and sworn on a vengeance crusade, could only have been created by someone familiar with righteous anger.
It’s not the only film dealing with themes in a similar cycle last year. 2020’s I May Destroy You, formed from creator Michaela Coel’s own experience, pinpoints the depravity of men who feel that any drunk woman is fair game. The trope may have already become deeply solidified by films such as Animal House and Superbad, but it stops here. I take issue with the film’s reading as ‘venomous’ or simply a ‘rape-revenge drama.’ Yes, it’s powerful, and yes it tackles the issues of consent and assault. But it’s also complex, deeply moving, and I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Am I pleased that it’s garnered BAFTAs and an Academy Award for Best Screenplay? Absolutely. Am I also troubled by the invisibility of rape culture in mainstream media and in everyday life? Absolutely. I think it’s masterful in its skewering of this trope – so precise in its indictment – yet I feel sad that it even had to be created for us to talk about assault so openly.
The film has been considered ‘stylish and propulsive’ at one end of the spectrum and ‘deeply troubling’ at the other (it depends on who’s watching – and cynics might argue, their own history.) But from a purely objective point of view, this film made everything so lucid. This is a film that relays an experience that’s familiar to many, pinpointing something women have agonised over. You only have to look at the recent tragic case of Sarah Everad in London to see that this grief is widespread and these issues can’t be avoided any longer. Women may have become expert at suppressing their stories, but all those unsolved cases are still right there and the character of Cassie is on a vengeance mission for each of these silences. Her anger, extreme as it might be, is a doppelganger: a visualisation of how, in an alternate reality, things might transpire.
In Flixist’s review, our own Jesse Lab observed that the film is more nuanced than simply a man-hating venture. And I’d agree. While thrillers like Violation explicitly target perpetrators of crimes against women, Promising Young Woman speaks volumes about the consequences of careless acts and is an elegy for Cassie’s lost potential, examining both men and women’s complicity. There’s so much to unpack, but I want to tackle the film across a few themes: the character of Cassie, men, the film’s cinematography and aesthetic, iconography, and finally, its consequences and call to action.
The mysterious child in phases of arrested development, living with parents at 30, Cassie is a med-school dropout with a dark past who can’t seem to move on. She’s trapped and traumatised by the loss of her best friend Nina after a college sexual assault; Nina dropped out, and Cassie followed to take care of her. “We loved Nina like a daughter, and we miss her,” says Cassie’s father, “but we missed you too.” If one line from the film has stayed with me the most, it’s exactly that: it shows how easy it is to lose oneself to trauma, because everyone’s trauma has seismic consequences on others.
If it sounds heavy, you’re right — it is. The film isn’t without its bright moments, and you’d be forgiven for reading it as a delicious neo-noir: from the bright contrived aesthetic of the coffee shop to the seedy, dark veneer of the club at night, Fennell’s eye is sharp. But underneath all this is a much more forceful message. I think what this film best showed was pain. Cassie’s addiction to it, her obsession with it, and her desire for catharsis. We can see that, over the years, it’s been a slow process of Cassie having melded all of that into her deceptively cherubic persona. By night, she reveals herself to be a maneater, prey turned predator, and this late-night persona also reveals how the act is so performative on both sides: a dance, a game, with winners and losers.
Thrillers are only as good as their character studies, and it’s clear from Mulligan’s past performances in Shame and Drive that she can propel a narrative. Other standouts in the genre more recently, like Thoroughbreds to Widows, show that a character can burn slowly at the start only to gradually wind up until they snap. In Promising Young Woman, Cassie slowly becomes more deeply invested in her belief, disfiguring beyond recognition. That’s why I feel like it’s going to be remembered in the genre, if not creating its own subgenre entirely.
The more I watch Promising Young Woman, the more layers keep unfolding, the more dimensions to Cassie’s personality unfold. The abductor of an unwitting schoolgirl. The mastermind behind the fall for an old college pal. The dominatrix. She is multi-faceted, ominous. When Cassie confronts her old college Dean (a chilling Connie Britton), the very same woman who dealt with Nina’s case, she anticipates the same apathy all these years later and acts accordingly. When she realises what’s happening, Dean Walker is distraught, but women in the building roll their eyes at the sound, no doubt accustomed to the ‘hysterical’ complaints of yet another victim. Cassie shrugs, her point made: “I guess it’s different when it’s someone you love.” She’s wildly unpredictable, and that’s what makes her so compelling.
“It’s a guy’s worst nightmare, being accused like that,” a pathetic groom-to-be whines during a compromising position at his bachelor party. Cassie seems surprised: “Can you imagine what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”
The men she picks up (I won’t say ‘terrorises’ – who is really doing the terrorising?) are each terrible in their own right, but the problem is that they believe they’re being a gentleman. Neil (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is a toe-curling example: he tries to coerce Cassie into snorting coke, he drawls on about his novel-in-progress exploring what it’s like to be a man right now; and he judges Cassie for wearing makeup, calling it “a f*cked-up system just to impress other women.” He’s simultaneously saccharine and demeaning, and if the act wasn’t so abhorrent, his performance would be comic. The instant reversal of power is thrilling and Cassie’s mission to tick off every man she encounters in her floral notebook in pastel gel pen shows just how deceptive she can be.
But make no mistake – she’s not evil. She’s complex. She’s not an Eve in the Garden of Eden, leading Adam astray, nor a siren ready to bring about a man’s downfall. She is acting in a way she believes will vindicate her friend, in her own way.
Cassie’s attitudes to men are tested when she cautiously starts dating Ryan (Bo Burnham.) I’ve deliberately held off discussing this character for a while because there’s been so much to unpack; and to have introduced him any earlier would have undermined the powerful presence of Cassie and her mission. But he’s a character worth dissecting. Bringing the awareness of Burnham’s comedy to his role, it’s clear that Fennell has chosen him very deliberately – an awkward and innocuous companion for Cassie. He is the only man to remember her name when he first sees her, which is poignant since other men Cassie confronts can’t even remember that detail about her.
But her misgivings about embarking on a normal relationship are evident, and no matter what boundaries they try to break down they will always live with the consequences of that college experience. Yet they’re affected in such different ways. Ryan and his male classmates were free to graduate, pursue their careers, and to become practising doctors. Cassie never returned to school. If this isn’t an indictment of the double-standards men and women are held to, I don’t know what is.
And what of the men who were complicit in the crime, if not direct perpetrators? In a memorable scene, Cassie confronts an old attorney who used to defend men accused of sexual assault and bully their victims into silence. Wishing to bring vengeance on him for all the cases in which he supported and acquitted perpetrators, Cassie arrives prepared to do the unimaginable. But the attorney unexpectedly reveals his moment of clarity, his epiphany, dubbed by work as a ‘psychotic episode’, but better described as an awakening of conscience.
The power play in this scene is excellent, and Cassie’s shift from bringer of reckoning to just a vulnerable woman next to a man supplicating himself is palpable. Her visible fear as he gets closer to her speaks volumes about the positioning of men and women and how she must mask feeling intimidated every day. His unexpected admission “I’ll never forgive myself – for any of this” is haunting, and prompts Cassie to soften, show mercy, if only for a moment.
Cinematography and aesthetic
Promising Young Woman’s mise-en-scene is remarkable, and although every film contains an element of set dressing and design, carried off well it can amaze viewers. The deeper we look into the film, the more vividly it becomes clear that semiotics are stitched into the narrative — from Cassie’s parents’ house, unchanged since she lived there as a girl, carrying the weight of her mother’s (Jennifer Coolidge) disappointment; to the opening shot of men gyrating to Charli XCX’s lyrics “I’ve been thinking ‘bout boys” in a reversed-male-gaze. It becomes apparent that this is a film that carries weight in every shot.
The tonal shifts are so rapid and so powerful. One minute, Cassie’s singing to Paris Hilton in a pharmacy. The next, she’s threatening strangers. She has all the workings of a sociopathic serial killer underneath her calm exterior. The shift in the lighting; a VFX thunderbolt in the background; a jagged, piercing rendition of Britney Spears’ Toxic by a string quartet. Toxicity is everywhere, embedded into attitudes and double standards for men and women. The Spears influence is clear in Cassie’s costumes, as theatrically contrived as if she’s preparing to go on stage: Spears’ downfall as a young woman is in parallel with Cassie and her friend Nina’s. The choice is not just a quirky parallel: it’s an indictment of the way women are objectified and discarded.
There are many disturbing parts to this film, but perversely I enjoyed them the most because they resonated the most. Cassie nearly blacks out at an intersection, the music swelling to a triumphant orchestral overture to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde when a misogynistic driver gives her abuse and she retaliates with a tire iron. It’s at once glorious and utterly unhinged: the overture is used at the end of Wagner’s opera as Tristan sings over Isolde’s dead body, and this scene feels just as bold and final as Cassie bidding farewell to the collected, composed woman she once was.
The soundtrack, especially, makes Promising Young Woman so arresting. From DeathbyRomy’s electrifying cover of It’s Raining Men playing over manga-style credits is an early highlight. Its placement is completely ironic: Cassie walks away from an abortive one-night stand in which she is clearly the victor, either blood or ketchup running ambiguously down her top – we can’t know for sure. As the song plays, she confronts a group of builders catcalling her, holding eye contact and remaining dead still, assertive, unrelenting, until they uncomfortably shuffle away.
The cinematography often posits Cassie directly in the middle of the frame. It has all the elements of the perfectly-executed thriller. An hour in, there’s a perfect shot of Cassie in the coffee shop, beautifully backlit, framed by a single blue ornament against a white background, almost a perfect dichotomy of a saint. There is more religious iconography too: Cassie drapes herself, crucifix-like on the club seating, a martyr or an offering, but she’s not the one who will be sacrificed.
What Mulligan and Fennell do so expertly is not just subvert expectations of the virgin/whore trope, but examine why it’s even in place to begin with. It’s not just men responsible, either. Over lunch, Cassie confronts an old college classmate Madison (Alison Brie) who knew about Nina’s assault and kept quiet. Going on to become a successful doctor and later a stay-at-home mother (another subtle indictment of a promising young woman giving up her career), Madison ultimately reveals her unchanging opinion, that ‘all men want a good girl’. “I don’t make the rules,” she complains. “If you get drunk, and you have sex with someone you didn’t want to, don’t expect people to be on your side.” The complicity is sickening; Cassie knows it and so do we. She realises nothing has changed, people’s attitudes will not shift unless someone intervenes and makes it personal. So she does. The revenge is inventive, but it’s also disturbing how easily and naturally it comes to Cassie.
The one thing that seems clear from the ending is that Cassie has the last laugh. Yet I do take issue in that she takes on the martyr role at the end of the film. Much like sorrowful Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, why should she have to pay the price for a man’s actions? It’s not a sunny outlook and no matter her devotion to her long-lost friend, I don’t feel that it actually solved the issue completely. At the end of the day, jail or no jail, these men live, Cassie and Nina don’t, and it feels defeatist rather than triumphant. I wonder to what extent Cassie knew this would happen in order to schedule packages and messages after her death, but in any case, she pulls it off. It’s not fully redemptive, but it is powerful.
I won’t be so glib as to describe Promising Young Woman as ‘empowering’ for women. It feels more like a battle cry, a war on the standards that have confined and silenced us, on timidity, apathy and complicity. Despite some of its flaws, I enjoyed this film immensely. It resonated powerfully, and its award season spoils show that others feel the same too. It’s a film that I wish I could have been on set when it was shot. I want to get under the skin of the screenplay and understand what Fennell was trying to accomplish.
Promising Young Woman is unlike any other film: it so confidently and assertively addresses rape culture that I hope it will become a turning point for feature films and in life. I hope that men watching this reassess the idea of what it means to be ‘a nice guy.’ I hope girls and women watching this will re-evaluate their own situations. It’s a film that says: “We’re not finished here yet.” I’m not sure that it offers true redemption — if such a thing is even possible in reality — but in every way, I hope it’s a game-changer.