Promising Young Woman, the debut film from actress and Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, is a divisive movie. It tackles the broad and insidious horror of violence against women, in all its casual and brutal forms, across an intricate plot. A technically precise, beat-by-beat saga of how trauma consumes and destroys, Promising Young Woman takes the rape revenge fantasy genre and gives it an upgrade, told in technicolor vignettes. Fennell knows how this story has been told before and makes it new, shepherding a powerhouse performance by Carey Mulligan, who shines with a vicious clarity that deserves Oscar recognition.
The story follows Cassie (Mulligan), a med school dropout whose best friend, Nina, had her life destroyed when she was brutally raped by classmate Al Monroe (Chris Lowell). Years later, Cassie is isolated and stagnant, living in her parents’ house and working at a coffee shop—but she spends her weekends pretending to be blackout drunk, waiting for men to approach her with seemingly good intentions. Without fail, these men take her home, and as soon as they transgress past a definite, undeniable point, Cassie confronts them, sober and forceful, holding them to account.
An old med school classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham, as a goofy charmer) wanders into her coffee shop one day and seems poised to give Cassie relief from both her mission and her isolation. But with Ryan comes new information: Al Monroe is about to get married. Cassie’s former classmates are all congratulating him online. Monroe’s life is moving on, picture-perfect, while Nina is buried and forgotten. Cassie’s mission becomes heightened and ultra-focused: No one is going to be allowed to forget about Nina on her watch.
As Carmen Maria Machado deftly points out, the word rape does not appear once in Promising Young Woman. Instead, rape is buried in euphemisms—asking for it, making mistakes, putting herself in a vulnerable position—lethal in their polite disregard. The euphemisms make it easy for people like the medical school dean (Connie Britton) and a dismissive classmate (Alison Brie) to shrug away the seriousness of the crime.
Promising Young Woman maintains much of the playful energy of Killing Eve, a visual sense of dark humor that makes tense moments somehow hilarious. Bashing in an asshole’s pickup truck windows? Hilarious. Clinging drunkenly to an oblivious man in a fedora? Great punchline. It’s an intricate balance of deadly seriousness and salty humor.
As one brilliant and cringeworthy scene plays out, Cassie is pretending to be very drunk in the home of an effusive nerd (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who lectures her about how makeup is a terrible misogynistic practice made to oppress women. He then begins to rub her makeup off, demanding to see the “real you” in a stinging parody of feminist thought.
This is a movie that’s difficult to discuss without spoiling, and I can’t guarantee that I’ll succeed, so please be warned—starting now, some spoilers ahead.
I’ve heard the complaint that Cassie as a character is one-dimensional, that her single-minded dedication to her mission makes her less realistic. But trauma does exactly that: it consumes. The pieces of the person Cassie was before are communicated in hints and memories—her parents’ disappointment, the severed social and academic connections she once based her life around. Cassie, as a character, is a person boiled down to a mission.
Another complaint I’ve heard about the movie’s rape revenge trope is that no one is legally held to account until the investigation becomes about murder rather than rape. Is the movie saying that rape revenge isn’t high enough stakes? That it’s not real until someone dies? Of course not. The whole movie is precedented around the wildfire trauma of sexual assault in Cassie’s life and the devasting lack of awareness and culpability that she’s met with. Maybe what the movie is saying is that legally, rape isn’t taken as seriously as murder. One is rationalized, one is absolute. It’s part of the ugly disregard threaded through the story: the authorities are waiting for rape to be excused, to be made explainable, but they know exactly how to take a murder seriously.
There is no happy ending, though—there’s no easy, neat conclusion at all. The light of day and the long arm of the law don’t come swooping in to recognize and correct all the horrors that Cassie spent years of her life bringing into focus. All we get is the experience we’re privy to through Cassie. Still, Promising Young Woman feels intentional from start to finish, every line balanced for effect and many-layered meanings. It’s messy in exactly the way it needs to be.
Top photo: YouTube screenshot
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Alison Lanier is a Boston-based writer and editor who currently studies media and gender at MIT. Her fiction, reviews, and poetry have appeared at Ms. Magazine, Origins, Atticus Review, The Establishment, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from UMass Boston and is a member of the Writers' Room of Boston and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter @LanierAlison.