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Cine Suffragette

Promising Young Woman (2020): Reassessing the female revenge thrillers

This reviews contains spoiler and trigger warnings.

There have been a number of female revenge thrillers in which the protagonist seeks justice through blood. Meir Zarchi’s 1978 I Spit on Your Grave, Bo Arne Vibenius’s 1973 Thriller: A Cruel Picture and Abel Ferrara’s 1981 Ms. 45 are some of the examples I can think of now, with female characters shaped under the male gaze and the gut-wrenching gore scenes are prioritized over their development after intense traumatic experiences. But I’m a fan of Ferrara’s movie and could see some character development in Zoë Lund’s protagonist as she portrays vulnerable facets, adding thus, more layers to her character than that of being a badass gunned woman 24/7. Besides, when flicks didn’t focus on women hunting down their attackers, we had their fathers doing that job as if the assault hurt solely their honor neverminding how this muted victims to narrate their own experience.

However, cultural shifts have taken place in society and Art thanks to the rise of the #MeToo movement years ago. Women-centered productions such as Michaela Coel’s 2020 I May Destroy You explores the complexity behind consent and we have, indeed, changed the way we approach this discussion. The productions have offered more credible human emotions and a rupture with misconceptions on consent, replacing guns with tangible solutions to the problem. Emerald Fennell’s emblematic first feature film, Promising Young Woman, aims at reassessing the rape-revenge movie genre as well as other scenarios where consent is trivialized.

British actress Carey Mulligan as the multi-layered Cassie Thomas in Promising Young Woman (2020). Photo: Reproduction

In ‘Promising Young Woman’, British actress and activist,Carey Mulligan, plays Cassie Thomas: a 30-year-old medical school dropout who lives a secret double life after her day job as a barista. The first time we meet her, she’s dressed as an executive and seemingly very drunk at a club. Three average men spot her and one of them shows sympathy and decides to take her home safely. This man is portrayed by The O.C. ‘nice guy’ Adam Brody. We soon find out he’s a predator, but before he thinks he has the control of the situation, a sober Mulligan drops her act and confronts him. She then leaves his place and is seen calmly walking down the street eating a snack with ketchup dripping down her clothes, and we deliberately believe that it was blood, in a sarcastic analogy to the popular revenge-seeking films such as those of Quentin Tarantino, as neon bubblegum aesthetic colors the opening titles. I was amazed to see that the movie was produced by a majority of women, including Margot Robbie, whose name was evoked in comparison to Mulligan’s in an infamous Variety review, stating that the last was miscast because she’s not a femme fatale like Robbie, who would be a logical bait for men. Sexist tropes like that are exactly what ‘Promising Young Woman’ fights against.

No woman’s body type or clothes determine her consent. Cassie’s drunk acts are not an invitation. They show how rape culture is trivialized by society. Photo: Reproduction

Cassie keeps lots of tallies of every targeted man in her journal — eventually we’ll see that they’ll be extended to people confronted in other ways — and this obsessive behavior can also be perceived in her struggle to move on from a traumatic past. She was a promising young woman just like her best friend Nina. Both were excellent med-school students, but when Nina was gang raped by her classmates, their lives changed completely. The only times we get to see Nina are when we are shown the girls’ childhood pictures that linger in Cassie’s childlike bedroom and laptop wallpaper. The reason why Cassie seems stuck in time is because she could never cope with her best friend’s subsequent suicide and that the assault was swept under the rug because it could have harmed the school’s promising young men.

It’s when Cassie bumps into another ‘nice guy’, not in a nightclub, but in her day job, that the plot changes its direction. Ryan (Bo Burnham) a pediatric surgeon that was her former classmate at the med-school, is goofy and respectful. We believe he’s different from the other ‘nice guys’ and the director wisely picked actors known for their previous charming and heartthrob roles such as Adam Brody cited above, Bo Burnham in Eighth Grade and Christopher Mintz-Plasse in Superbad (whose character in the 2020 film keeps saying “ but I’m a nice guy” in his date with Cassie). Fennell’s intention was to show that these are guys you wouldn’t peg as predators or complicit, and this approach is essential to reassess many TV shows and movies we love — and real life events of course —but that we failed to notice non-consensual scenes as in (Last Tango in Paris, Nine 1/2 Weeks, Basic Instinct, and etc.) protagonized by Hollywood’s traditional heartthrobs whose category has kept up with the #MeToo times where it now embraces a masculinity that isn’t toxic. Yet, movies like ‘Promising Young Woman’ show that redefining culture and challenging long-standing machismo take time and women should always watch their own backs.

From left: Carey Mulligan, director Emerald Fennell and Laverne Cox on the set of Promising Young Woman. Photo: Reproduction

Another way that Emerald’s debut film has aligned to our recent times is normalizing casting trans actors. Laverne Cox is a trailblazing trans actress who portrays Gail, Cassie’s coworker at the day job at a coffee shop. Their positive relationship refigures the evolution of female friendship on screen, which has become much more complex and inclusive. Nevertheless, Universal Pictures allowed Laverne’s character to be dubbed by men in different versions of the movie. Although the film studio has apologized to her and the trans community, this was ridiculously transphobic and just shows how much the movie industry still has to take significant steps forward for LGBTQIA+ inclusion.

Cassie’s romantic relationship with Ryan holds her hunts until she learns that he’s still in touch with the med-school classmates who abused Nina. She doesn’t shed a light on the event until she reconnects with Madison, another former colleague, played by Alison Brie. Both women and men were complicit to the assault, dismissing it as a ‘he-said, she-said’ situation, and Madison is part of this narrative until she’s confronted by Cassie who puts her in an uncomfortable situation that would resemble a woman’s biggest fear. The protagonist uses the same tactic with the school dean (Connie Britton) and we understand how much it takes to deconstruct our victim-blaming culture. Madison’s realization led her to hand Cassie an old phone containing the horrifying video and she learns that Ryan was a bystander that night. That’s triggering enough for Cassie’s final act which consists of a determining confrontation with Nina’s rapist, Al Monroe (Christopher Lowell).

Carey Mulligan’s role in Promising Young Woman has definitely been the most provocative and remarkable of her career. Photo: Reproduction

Dressed as a ‘naughty nurse’ and followed by a soul-stirring instrumental cover of Britney Spears’s Toxic— which totally dialogues with the movie’s pop references and message on consent as the lives of pop stars like Britney have finally been reexaminated after decades of constant harassment we were part of— Cassie is disguised as the hired stripper for Al Monroe’s bachelor Party.

Another pop culture allegory we see in the movie is how the protagonist’s looks reflect her complex personas in different moments. Insider compared her to two contrasting figures: 60’s icon Brigitte Bardot and Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. I juxtaposed Bardot’s picture in Le Mépris and Carey’s in Promising Young Woman where both allegories are noticeable.

The Disposable Sex Worker trope is also addressed in the movie. When Cassie knocks out the other men at the party with a spiked drink, she ties Al Monroe to a bed and starts to tease him by reminding him of Nina and says she possesses the video that would destroy his reputation. But as she attempts to carve Nina’s name into his chest with a scalpel, so he would never forget what he did, he slips free and suffocates her to death. The next morning, Al’s best friend, Joe (Max Greenfield) finds both in bed and learning that his friend killed Cassie, he stands by Al’s side and helps burn the protagonist. Before the other night incident, Al Monroe kept saying he was a loyal man and he was just a kid when everything happened. Ryan was also full of excuses and at the end of the day, not only men have a hard time taking accountability, but also cover up for their male friends and that’s why much of the toxic masculinity culture still gets in the way of tangible moves in ending rape culture.

Even though ‘Promising Young Woman’ ending divided opinions, it exposed a harsh truth about how little society has evolved in protecting women and condemning men. It took 80 women to bring Harvey Weinstein down and it took the death of a woman who fought alone for the validation of her best friend’s rape. I couldn’t visualize a sweet end to a movie that showed to be game-changing from the start.Cassie’s ashes will reverberate for much longer as the movie set a whole new path for female revenge thrillers, and perhaps for our society’s treatment of rape culture.

This article was also published in Portuguese on my other Blog.

Anyone at risk of family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault can seek help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, either online or by calling 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Information is also available in 28 languages other than English.

If this article has raised issues for you or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

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