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Review: Promising Young Woman

Esther Okorocha examines the subversions and shortcomings of Emerald Fennel's Oscar-winning revenge flick

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Image Credit: Focus Features

Director: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie
Running Time: 1hr 53m
Rating: R

TW: Sexual Assault

Contains Spoilers for the Film’s Ending

Since its 2020 debut at Sundance, Promising Young Woman has had an incredible year. Following its release, the film has garnered much praise from critics and award shows alike, culminating in a win for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars last month. It’s not hard to understand why the film has received so much initial praise. Even the trailer, from the chilling remix of Toxic to that moment when Cassie says “Hey, I said, What are you doing?”, sets up the audience for a thrilling and unpredictable journey.

The movie opens to a gaggle of  men dancing in a club, but the way it’s filmed is different from what you might expect. In an attempt to subvert well-known tropes, viewers are instantly met with what Fennell describes as “The slow-mo, the lascivious pan-up, the sort of erotic gaze normally reserved for oiled-up music-video hotties.” Yet instead of looking at women who are commonly filmed through a sexualised male gaze, “we’re looking at regular dudes in chinos with absolutely no dancing ability.” Then, we are met with med-school dropout Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan) in the bar as she pretends to be completely hammered, waiting for a seemingly nice guy to take the bait. When a man tries to take advantage of a ‘drunk’ Cassie, she confronts him, venomously. Confused at her suddenly sober state, he becomes guilty and ashamed. She does this a few times in the film. While it’s interesting to watch Cassie on her vengeful quest against these men, the outcomes are almost too ‘realistic’. Each man that Cassie takes revenge on walks away scott-free. Furthermore, the men’s recognition of their actions isn’t payback at all. They neither apologise for their actions or take any accountability, rendering her mission unsatisfactory.

Fennell was very intentional about her casting of the men in the film. The first man to assault Cassie is Jez, played by The OC’s Adam Brody. The audience may remember Brody as the bumbling, innocent teenager and the script describes this character as “a shy, sweet guy who 2is clearly dying to leave.” This image is supposed to make his actions even more shocking than they already are. Another man that Cassie scopes out claims to be a “nice guy”, but doesn’t even remember Cassie’s name. At his response, all Cassie does is scold him and leaves. Again, her ‘revenge’ is nothing more than a stern telling off. While the men’s reaction’s and Cassie’s abrupt change in manner are supposed to be comical (Fennell seems bent on describing the film as a“black comedy”), it's more underwhelming than it is funny.

Something that Fennell does well is her depiction of the language and attitude surrounding sexual assault.The word “rape” is never explicitly said. When Cassie actually watches the assault, the footage is not shown. We only watch Cassie’s horrified reaction. Yet the audience is fully aware of what is going on. Furthermore, Fennell chooses to depict men and women as enablers of Nina’s rapist. Interestingly, Cassie’s most hard-hitting acts of revenge are against the women. First is Dean Walker (Laura Dern), who sided with Nina’s rapist. The second woman is Madison (Alison Brie), who has remained friends with Nina’s rapist since school.  However, the brief acceptance of their wrongdoing still isn’t enough for revenge. While accepting their behaviours years later, there are no consequences for their actions. In trying to avoid general conventions of the rape revenge genre, Fennell misses the mark entirely.

The ending of Promising Young Woman may be one of its biggest faults. The trailer indicates that the film will be “a delicious new take on revenge”, claiming that “payback never looked so promising.” Yet when Cassie eventually corners Nina’s rapist, he breaks free and smothers Cassie with a pillow in an agonizingly drawn out death sequence. What’s more terrifying is that Cassie had a plan in the event that she would be murdered. Even though the plan ends with the arrest of Nina’s rapist, Cassie’s anticipation of her death offsets her ‘supposed’ achievement of revenge. Furthermore, Fennell’s presentation of Cassie’s death as a reunion with Nina is problematic because the film ends with both Nina and Cassie as victims of the same man. He is arrested, but we don’t get to see a verdict. Even if he did end up in jail, it’s unlikely that he would have spent much time there. Thus, the film’s ending sends a bleak message to women, depicting rape as something that one cannot survive.

From the trailer to the film itself, there are too many moments where Fennell sets up satisfactory instances for revenge but fails to deliver, which begs the question - who is this film for? While Fennel has stated that she wrote the script before the #metoo movement, it feels as if the film was purposefully made in the light of a post-Weinstein industry. A message, if there is one at all, is lost behind its bubblegum appearance. Promising Young Woman is what it says on the tin — promising. It is not a triumph for all women.

Editor's Note: Promising Young Woman is set to play on Sky Movies Showcase

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