“Promising Young Woman” Leaves Viewers Puzzled and Asking the Right Questions

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Photo Courtesy of NPR

Jennifer Sor

News Editor

TW: sexual assault

Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” begins with a scene that feels regretfully familiar: Cassie (Carey Mulligan) sits slumped and fettered to her bar booth. Seemingly wasted, she’s too much for one man to resist, who winks to his friend before offering to drive her back to his home. He lays a mumbling Cassie in bed and removes her underwear, only to discover — halted by her sharp voice — that she was stone-cold sober the entire time.

The scene ends with the man (Adam Brody) looking into the camera in a mixture of horror and shame, then repeats itself. Night after night, it is Cassie, not the men who take her home, who zeroes on her target: businessmen, musicians, cokeheads, doctors; those we wouldn’t normally recognize as sexual offenders, but if given the chance, are all too ready to make excuses for their bad behavior.

Fennell’s ambition is applaudable, the film offering a fascinating take on rape culture. It has led a number of critics to call “Promising Young Woman” a “feminist revenge thriller” — finally, some retribution for the men who quietly commit these crimes! But despite Cassie’s vigilantism, the movie doesn’t stray far from reality, cut with bitter truths that make it a powerful film. Fennell refuses to sugarcoat, depicting the harrowing nature of sexual assault without showing it graphically. Reports of sexual assault are devastating, but more importantly, committed by the very people who live among us — a sour fact that burns through the screen and shakes the audience to its core.

Although some have criticized the film as triggering, Fennell’s bluntness is essential in driving her message home. Her humor falls flat at times, the thriller-comedy format puzzling viewers, but Fennell’s script is particularly successful in addressing hard truths and questioning belief systems that have stacked the cards against sexual assault survivors for so long.

As Cassie confronts the men who take her home, Fennell appears to be confronting the audience itself. “It’s every man’s worst nightmare to be accused like that!” says Al (Chris Lowell), who begins crying when Cassie reveals her true intentions. 

“Fennell’s ambition is applaudable, the film offering a fascinating take on rape culture. It has led a number of critics to call “Promising Young Woman” a “feminist revenge thriller” — finally, some retribution for the men who quietly commit these crimes!”

Cassie looks at him coldly. “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” she asks, a moment that so artfully encompasses the point of the film. It rivals the film’s title, “Promising Young Woman,” as one of its most meaningful components. “Promising,” of course, is a verb, not an adjective. 

A clever cast of male characters reverberates this message: Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and other adored comedians are employed against the audience, implicating the viewers in their crimes. We are so willing to defend our loveable sitcom actors as they mistreat the women around them, before realizing with horror that this is exactly how sexual assaulters are defended in real life. 

Fennell’s commentary on gender relations is certainly fascinating, but at the same time, riddled with too many holes to take at face value. The film, for instance, does not comment on the experience of male survivors — understandable given that the majority of sexual crimes are inflicted on women, but nonetheless paints an incomplete picture.

Interestingly, events in the movie also take place on a hyperfeminized set, panning from Cassie’s bubblegum coffee shop to the Victorian pastels of her childhood home. While the use of color holds some meaning (the interplays of blue and pink being a clear nod to gender), it wins more points for aesthetics than it does for overall effect. One can’t help but feel that the set design is artificial, so technicolor and intentionally feminine, that it pulls the viewer out of the story. 

Cassie herself is also hyperfeminine, which isn’t necessarily flawed, but Fennell pushes it to such an extent that it questions the integrity of Cassie’s character. Cassie’s hair and wardrobe are not only picture-perfect in every scene, but her appearance is one of the most striking things about her, the purpose of which feels unclear. Is it to reflect a powerful narrative about femininity, that someone can be capable and feminine at the same time? Or is it merely to have an attractive female protagonist, a choice that ultimately pushes the film’s message to the wayside? 

“FENNELL’S COMMENTARY ON GENDER RELATIONS IS CERTAINLY FASCINATING, BUT AT THE SAME TIME, RIDDLED WITH TOO MANY HOLES TO TAKE AT FACE VALUE. THE FILM, FOR INSTANCE, DOES NOT COMMENT ON THE EXPERIENCE OF MALE SURVIVORS…”

Before carrying out her final act of revenge, Cassie examines her reflection in her car and dabs at her lipstick in the rearview mirror, a move so cliché it warrants an eye roll. While her search for justice has the potential to be incendiary, one can’t help but feel that the movie takes the femme-fatale trope too far, rendering Cassie as two-dimensional figure (albeit a well-dressed one). Femininity itself is a neutral characteristic, but it’s unsettling to see it as Cassie’s main personality trait, the audience knowing as little about her at the end of the movie as they did in the beginning.

“Promising Young Woman” is as bold as it is bewildering: if one of the prevailing issues behind rape culture is the objectification of women, why does Fennell appear to objectify Cassie herself, placing greater visual emphasis on her appearance instead of her actual character? And even though Cassie has good reason to seek revenge, how is it possible that someone has dedicated their Friday evenings to doing so? Is it really believable that Cassie has played her trick for so long without putting herself in serious danger?

The film leaves these questions unanswered, but steers a dialogue in the right direction. What constitutes a man’s worst nightmare? And why should a man’s worst nightmare be avoided at the expense of a woman’s worst nightmare?