The Importance Of “Promising Young Woman”
Even days after watching this film, I am still reeling from the story.
If you haven’t seen this movie, then please stop reading, I don’t want to spoil it, because it is truly worth watching.
When I sat down to watch this movie, I knew what I was going to be watching, or at least, I thought I did. I’d seen the trailer and the hype — scorned woman goes on revenge spree against men — it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
But oh my, how I was wrong.
Emerald Fennell has produced a masterpiece. A raw, hard stare into modern rape culture and its effects on women.
The movie takes place, somewhere, but we aren’t entirely sure where, and it doesn’t really matter. Scenes have a small town feel, mixed in with a cityscape, and it could be 1990, or 2015, (albeit for a few mobile phones to bring you up to date). But that is the point, this story could be written about any town, or any city, at any time. It’s purpose is to highlight a culture which, for too long, has permeated society.
We meet Cassie (Carey Mulligan), drunk and alone in a club. Jerry (Adam Brody) is the knight in shining armour, his jerk friends are joking about how easy she would be to pick up, but Jerry offers to get a cab and take her home. He very nearly makes it too, until he casually remembers that he lives, ‘just around here’, and so they head to his apartment — Cassie nearly passing out, and barely able to stand. We see him pour two drinks, hers much fuller than his own, and he starts to kiss a near unresponsive Cassie, before moving her to the bedroom to ‘lie down’.
What occurs is an uncomfortable, fly-on-the-wall view of what so many women have been through. Unable to move, unable to think clearly, Cassie is at the will of a man who is unable, or unwilling, to see that a passed out woman, is NOT a consenting one.
It’s awful to watch, and as we see it unfold, I wanted to jump into the screen and pull her out of there. No need to fear however, because the first trick that Fennell plays to us is about to be revealed, for Cassie is not drunk, and she sits bolt upright, sending terror and fear into Jerry. The next scene we see is Cassie walking home, and we are completely in the dark about what happened to Jerry and his wandering hands.
As the movie continues, we find that Cassie was a medical student, and her best friend since childhood, Nina, is no longer with us. Although never explicitly stated, it is assumed that Nina completed suicide as a result of her trauma. Nina was sexually assaulted at a party, by a group of male students. It was reported, and pressure was put on Nina to withdraw her statement. The pain too much to bear and overcome, Nina, and subsequently Cassie too, drop out of their studies — their lives destroyed while the ‘men’ go on to become successful doctors.
Cassie takes us through her life, as she plays the drunk woman, to sift out the good and the bad guys. She plays it perfectly, until the final moment, when all is revealed — this drunk woman, is no such thing.
We find out that Cassie does not physically harm the men, and I was so relieved to know this. She instead, holds up a mirror to their actions, forcing them to face their own true characters. She forces self-reflection, and does it in a harsh and cold reality, to show them what their actions are, and how despicable they are. The hope is that this causes this them to think twice about who they take home, and what condition those women are in.
Now, I know, as every woman knows, that it is not ‘all men’. This phrase gets thrown around far too much. We know it’s not all men, but it is ‘some men’, and while it’s some, it’s dangerous.
We tell our children not to go with strangers for their own safety, even though we know that it’s not ‘all strangers’ who pose a risk. Nobody has any issue with continuing to teach our children this, yet many have an issue with women being wary of ‘all men’. When some will hurt, rape, or murder you, then yes, women will be afraid.
When Cassie meets Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old college classmate, we see her softer side appear. Initially afraid, and untrusting, she allows him in, and he seems, for the most part, like the opposite of the men we have seen in the movie so far. But here is Fennell’s next expert stroke.
When a video of Nina’s attack emerges, we hear a familiar voice present, and Cassie reels with the realisation that her new love is complicit in the attack on her best friend. “But I didn’t do anything” Ryan pleads with her, and through expert writing, we see even more of what is wrong. Present, but unchallenging, Ryan was complicit in the attack, his inaction becoming his action. His concern is for his job, and himself, showing his true colours — a cowardly, complicit, misogynist.
Cue the uncomfortable shuffle of men in the audience. He was the good guy, the one guy that wasn’t like the others. The one guy that was like them. Yes, all men, it seems.
On then, to the final showdown, the bachelor party of the lead attacker, Al Munroe (Chris Lowell), and Cassie dresses as a stripper for the event. In her nurses outfit and colourful wig, Mulligan manages to conjure images of both Heath Ledger’s Joker, and Harley Quinn, as she sets out for her final target.
And so we reach the final turn. A handcuffed Al, is trapped on the bed, Cassie is hellbent on carving Nina’s name into his chest — a permanent reminder of his sins. And then it happens. The twist. The final trick from Fennell.
With one snap of a handcuff, Al is free, and he forces a pillow over Cassie’s face, holding it in place with his knee.
The cinematography in this scene is award winning in itself. So many times, women are killed on screen in a 10 second rush of blood to the man’s head. It’s over as quickly as it started.
But not here, for the camera stays on our murderer, as he yells at her that it is all her fault. The camera stays on for around two and a half minutes. So long that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. You want to look away. But why should we? A woman is being murdered. We are forced to see the lengthy reality of how long it takes to suffocate someone — the strength, the anger, the determination.
I wish that Cassie would have survived. But let’s be real. The minute she walked into a room, alone with a man, and introduced a weapon — the odds were not in her favour.
It is a reality that is real to all too many women, every, single, day.
The violence is presented to us in such a way that it feels distasteful, but it should, a man killing a woman is a distasteful thing, and you should be made to feel uncomfortable in its presence. Fennell brings us so close that we are unable to dismiss it.
For women, it’s a scary thought that this could be us. For most men, it is horrific to think that this happens. For most men will not do this. But some will, and continue to do so, and until it’s “all men” who are good and safe, then we will be afraid.
Cassie dies 20 minutes before the end of the movie, and in a final stroke of genius, we see her get her revenge, and her justice, for herself and Nina. Despite this resolution however, we are left with the gaping reality of lives destroyed, and lives taken.
It’s not a feel good film. It won’t restore your faith in men, like so many romantic comedies attempt to do. It won’t have you, as a woman, feel less afraid. But what it does do, is continue to highlight the issue, it’s in your face now, and men too have seen it play out on screen.
Let it open discussion with those men who are ‘good’. Let it cause them to challenge behaviour when they witness their friends behaving so despicably.
For this is a battle for women, but it’s a battle that we need men to take part in. Speak up, stand up, and confront it when you see it. Otherwise, you’re a Ryan, and just as complicit as the rest.