Warning: the following contains spoilers for the film Promising Young Woman. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop. Do not proceed. Bookmark this article and come back to it after you have.
I have a confession to make.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a reaction like the one I had after watching Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (PYW). I’ve seen the film several times now and on each occasion, I felt like punching my face as a form of penance for having the same anatomy as the repugnant assholes portrayed in the film.
Reading the excerpt to the left, from a script also by Fennell, reminds me just how gross I felt watching the scene play out in the movie. I knew it had got to me when I looked over to my other half after one viewing and sheepishly said, ‘we’re not all like that, I promise’.
And that’s when it hit me.
Men are bastards.
Don’t get me wrong, not all men are bastards. Far from it in fact. But there are many, far too many, who are exactly like the ones portrayed in Promising Young Woman. You know the ones I’m talking about. You’ve read about them and seen the news on them. Their harassment, their offensive jokes, abuse, and violence towards women. We’ve even elected some of them to be our leaders!
Yes, men are bastards.
But not because PYW says so, but because real life shows us this.
This may come across as flippant — facetious even, but let’s not miss the point. We need to be reminded of how toxic male superiority and arrogance can be. We need to sit up and take notice of the lengths some men are willing to go to conceal their conceit.
And I think PYW delivers this reminder in a way only cinema can.
If you don’t already know the plot, here’s a recap: super-smart Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) works as a coffee barista by day, and by night hits the bars and clubs in town pretending to be drunk.
She’s done this before.
She knows that at least one man, a ‘nice guy’, will attempt to take her home in her ‘condition’, leading to a very uncomfortable outcome for the man — and viewers, I should add (see excerpt above).
Of course, the film isn’t just about what she does in her spare time in the evenings.
Cassie’s hurting on the inside too.
She’s still reeling from the rape and subsequent death of her beloved friend Nina, during their time at med school. This is a tragedy that has transformed Cassie. She’s unable to move on from that dark past and the consequences of this reach a chilling conclusion.
Here’s the thing. There’s something disturbing yet totally right about Cassie’s nocturnal habits. Why would someone do that? She’s unhinged and likely dealing with deep-rooted issues but that doesn’t mean what she’s doing is anything less than justified.
She’s seeking retribution, not in a John Wick way, but revenge which seems real and which makes total sense to me. PYW changes the conversation about drunken hook-ups. It’s a film that continues the debate about what consent means especially when one of you is stone-cold drunk to even know what is going on.
Unfortunately, it’s usually men who are the ones taking advantage of these situations. In the majority of cases, it’s men who are the perpetrators of sexual abuse, harassment, misogyny, sexism, rape, and prejudice against women.
History has shown that my side hasn’t been kind to women. Despite movements like #MeToo gaining pace around the world, it still feels like more needs to be done on the topic.
Unless something major happens in the world, we’re stuck with these men for the foreseeable future.
Bastard № 1 — Jez
But let’s leave the rhetoric aside for a second and just focus on the movie.
The opening scene of the film takes place in a bar. Three men are talking about a female colleague and the first words uttered are, “fuck her man”. Right away this sets the tone of the film. We’re in a man’s world here and according to these men, women don’t deserve to be a part of it.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this opening scene has played out for real somewhere in the world in some form. And continues to be played out. An endless loop where men vent their frustrations — and masculinity — on unsuspecting women. It’s played in such a way where you can almost feel the anger. Men seething because they can’t deal with women having a seat at the table.
The bar scene leads into the scene from the excerpt above. The ‘nice guy’ of the three, Jez, played by actor Adam Brody, succeeds in getting Cassie into his apartment, but we know how that turns out for him.
The scene is uncomfortable because deep down inside we all know this stuff happens all the time. You may have had the first-hand experience of this yourself, or you’ve heard of an experience similar to this from someone you know.
Even if you haven’t, you know it’s still wrong. Watching someone take advantage of someone in this way is damn right disgusting. It’s borderline rape. Later, the film elaborates on this theme with greater effect.
I love what Emerald Fennell does with the opening of PYW. She introduces us to a character who has a unique way of making a point. Fennell lures us into Cassie’s world. We join her on her crusade. We become a witness to her journey and there’s a sense she doesn’t necessarily want to go down this path, but that she needs to go down this path. And we, the audience, want and need her to succeed.
Bastard № 2 — Neil
In another ‘drunken’ night out, Cassie is taken home by Neil, the script describes Neil as a “pretentious 30-something” bastard, played brilliantly by actor Christopher Mintz-Plasse.
His attempt at having sex with Cassie is derailed when he realises she’s not actually drunk.
I found the scene funny and skin-crawling in equal measure. Kudos to Fennell’s script for balancing these tricky moments — not a laugh-out-loud comedy, but humour with just the right amount of bite to it.
Again, this is Cassie doing her bit to make a point. For people like Neil, and there are real Neils out there, it’s okay to have sex with a drunk woman because they think they’re entitled to it. They have no qualms doing it irrespective of whether a woman agrees to it or not, and I think the movie drives this message home well — that men, even the unassuming ones, or unpretentious ones, have this predatory nature in them.
How many of you wondered why Cassie didn’t just report these creeps to the police so they could throw their asses in jail? At one point I did. On reflection, I don’t think it would’ve been the same movie. Perhaps Cassie instinctively knows that institutions like the legal ones are set up in a way that creates inequality?
Would she get the justice she craves by taking the matter to the police? There’s a doubt. And besides, I liked that Fennell didn’t make this a piece on “carceral feminism” and instead went for a revenge thriller which makes for a far more interesting piece of cinema in my opinion.
Bastard № 3 — Institutions
I did a quick search on the internet and found a plethora of sexual assault cases in universities around the world. It’s shocking. What’s even more shocking is how these big institutions sidestep these issues to avoid accountability.
I think PYW does a good job of highlighting this reality.
At around the halfway point of the film, Cassie’s quest for justice leads her back to the university where Nina was raped. The film eschews the stereotypical view that it’s always men in charge, and instead cleverly makes the face of the university — Dean Walker — a woman, played by Connie Britton.
It’s almost as if the filmmakers are saying, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge, a man or a woman, the cycle of dismissing these allegations or silently ignoring them carries on regardless.
I loved how this scene played out. Cassie takes her anger and frustration to the doorstep of the person at the top. She chastises Dean Walker. She makes Dean Walker realise she didn’t do enough to help Nina; that she took the word of the denier and dismissed the word of the victim. And what does Dean Walker have to say in return?
I think this scene pretty much sums up what some people are up against — well-established institutions perpetuating injustices. It also feels like there’s an unwritten rule somewhere in these places that says, brush this stuff under the carpet if you can.
But Cassie can’t let it go and the dean eventually feels Cassie’s wrath in a way only she does best.
Another great scene.
Bastard № 4 — Al Monroe
Of all the bastards in PYW Al’s the one I was most intrigued to see onscreen. When we finally meet him towards the film’s grand finale, he comes across as rather regular. There’s nothing sinister looking about him. And I guess that’s the point.
The predators that lurk in everyday society are regular people. They have regular jobs and families. They’re upstanding members of society, boring even. By presenting Al in this way I think the film is making a statement. It’s saying, even the ones who look, speak, and act decently can turn out to be the worst examples of humanity.
When you think about it, that’s deep.
Cassie tracks Al down to a cabin in the woods — his bachelor party no less — and a night he won’t forget for the rest of his life. Cassie eventually gets some alone time with Al and through this, we learn a bit more about Cassie’s unshakeable bond with Nina. There’s an emotional outpour from her that we haven’t seen before, and it’s almost poetic that she would open up like this in front of Al Monroe, the man responsible for Nina’s death.
The film’s dark twist left me dumbstruck. After watching Cassie go through everything to get to this point, it was shocking to see her fade away.
There’s a part of me that thinks she knew what was going to happen, and that she was still willing to go through with it anyway. She was prepared to pay the ultimate price for getting justice for Nina and if it meant her life, then so be it.
There’s no doubt that if the movie ended right there, it would’ve been a bleak one. I must confess that there’s a teeny-tiny part of me that would even prefer an ending that bleak.
Not because I like focusing on bleak stuff, but because life can be bleak.
We don’t always get what we want in life and there’s something raw but real about that.
But that’s just me. And this is Hollywood.
Cassie’s nor Nina’s story ends there.
Just when we all thought Al might get away with what he’s done, and in the film’s final twist, justice is served.
The clever girl that she is, Cassie sent evidence of Al’s culpability in Nina’s rape to the right people before she went to the cabin.
One of the final shots of the film is Al being handcuffed and led away by the police on his wedding day.
Justice never looked so sweet.
Bastard № 5 — Ryan
I left this bastard till the end because it’s the one that hurts the most I think.
Ryan bumps into Cassie at the coffee shop where she works and it’s made apparent he’s someone she knew from medical school. Ryan gets off on the wrong foot at first (Cassie spits in his coffee) but Ryan is persistent (he drinks said coffee in front of Cassie), if that’s not true love then I don’t know what is.
The film does really well in developing this relationship to the point you start to believe that maybe Cassie’s obsession with getting justice for Nina might go away. She begins to laugh more. She’s more relaxed, calmer even — not the hard-as-nails Cassie from before. Ryan is one of the nice guys. He’s funny, charming, and deeply in love with Cassie and it’s easy to see why Cassie would fall for him.
BUT, there’s a but.
Cassie finds out that Ryan, the man she’s fallen in love with, was present the night Nina was raped. Not only was he there, but can be heard on a video laughing at the proceedings. Not an active participant, but definitely present to see what was going on.
Cassie is devastated. But in true Cassie form doesn’t let it get in the way of what she has to do next.
I thought this was another great twist in the story. There’s a part of me that thought Cassie deserved a bit of happiness but that it just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe this is me reading too much into it, but I felt as if the ghost of Nina and Cassie’s past would always come back to haunt her. Not letting her move on, forever forcing her to exact revenge?
Ryan, a loveable geek, who by the way is typically the heroes in Hollywood movies, turns out to be a bastard. Casting comedian Bo Burnham as Ryan was a great move from Fennel. It flips the script on the audience's expectations, and this idea that nice guys are the good guys. In reality, it’s more complicated than that.
It’s clear Ryan loves Cassie. And we even think he might be the one. But he was there when Nina was raped. Cassie’s sickened by this and she can’t go back to being normal with him — the pain would be too much.
His guilt and shame aren’t enough for Cassie to forgive, so she deals with Ryan in a way only she knows best. Cue the final twist.
Now that I’ve seen the film several times and had a chance to read the script I feel as if I can speak about how it made me feel. Behind its dark-humour lies a serious message. Yes it’s funny, yes it’s entertaining, and made in such a way to make you feel uncomfortable. But that’s not all that’s there.
I think the movie goes beyond just being a piece of entertainment. It points to a larger discussion we need to have about sexual harassment and abuse, and the way society treats victims of rape. PYW made me think about my own views on sexual harassment and abuse and what I, as a man, can contribute to the debate.
Watching a film like PYW and reading about the real-life victims of abuse and harassment has made me acutely aware of the kind of society I’m bringing up a young daughter — and a young boy I might add.
It’s becoming ever more important to educate youngsters, not just my own, but all youngsters, on what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour with women.
A final message to the men out there
I know it’s hard for you but your time is seriously up. More and more people are becoming aware of your behaviour. They’re standing up and speaking out against your misogyny, outdated perceptions, harassment, and abuse.
It’s only a matter of time before you’re found out for the bastards you are and before you know it, someone like Cassie will really get their revenge.
Don’t be that guy.
Don’t be a bastard.
Now that you’ve seen the film what did you make of it? Do you think it deserved to win anything at this year’s Golden Globes? As always, hit me up in the comments.