Promising Young Woman invents a new genre. Maybe that’s an overstatement – it might be clearer to say that it iterates a new genre. This is a modern-day rape revenge story, a reimagining of an archaic exploitation genre that’s since been relegated to DTV schlock (think the execrable I Spit On Your Grave remake franchise) or pseudo-feminist experiments in style (the impressive French flick, Revenge, from a few years ago).
But these films still operate on an outdated, or at least blinkered, conception of sexual assault, one built purely around sexual violence. While these films might acknowledge systemic issues contributing to rape culture – the disinterest or outright complicity of institutions like the police, the threat posed by seemingly-harmless “nice guys” – they steer clear of more commonplace (yet equally horrifying assaults) like date rape or the exploitation of inebriated women.
Promising Young Woman centres on these pedestrian predators. More specifically, it focuses on Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), who spend her evenings pretending to be legless to flip the script on the men who would take her home under the guise of charity. We soon learn that Cassie’s motivated by a trauma inflicted on a college friend of hers, with writer/director Emerald Fennell’s screenplay expanding its scope to consider a broader revenge plan on those responsible (with a rom-com subplot featuring Bo Burnham tossed in for good measure).
This is a smart film. A stylish film. A film that is heightened enough – with sharp, cotton-candy colours and bouncy pop tunes – to justify character designs that skew stereotypical, but grounded enough – with a thoughtful recognition of the ramifications of rape – to avoid feeling exploitative. Mulligan is, as ever, fantastic; she navigates the film’s emotional chicane with the skill of an alpine skier. Fennell’s writing is similarly commendable in the way it threads a needle through delicate subject matter; while I might be among the converts of the argument it presents here, I can see the film changing the minds of the unconvinced when it comes to the perniciousness of contemporary rape culture.
I wanted Promising Young Woman to be a great film, but I don’t think it is. It took me a while to hone in on what didn’t land for me, but it was immediately clear that it was tied to an early reveal. So, minor spoilers follow, I suppose?
The film’s opening scene – one of its best, honestly – follows Cassie’s M.O. in excruciating detail. She’s playing drunk; enter a “nice guy” (Adam Brody) who promises to order her a cab home. Then shares said cab home. Then invites her up. Every moment of this is delicious, because we’ve seen the trailer. Sure, there’s this undercurrent of dread bubbling below the surface, but it’s carefully counterbalanced with our knowledge that the apparently catatonic Cassie is playing a part. Crucially, Fennell withholds the conclusion from us – when Brody goes to make his move and Cassie snaps out of her affected inebriation, we’re snapped to the opening titles and, then, a mischievous scene of Cassie strolling down the street with red liquid dripping down her arm – ketchup from a hot dog, as it turns out.
The film is coyly playing with our expectations. What happened to Brody’s character? Violence is strongly implied, especially when we see Cassie add to her seemingly endless list of tally marks. But it isn’t until Cassie’s next evening excursion that the end result is revealed. She’s at the apartment of a scruffy dude played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse – perfect casting, especially when he opens the seen waxing rhapsodic about David Foster Wallace essays – whose attempts to prey on her are soon defused. What happens? What unique punishment will our protagonist mete out? Well, having sufficiently shamed him with her soberness, she wanders out into the night, leaving him to stew in his own guilt.
This struck a false note for me – both in the moment and reflecting upon it later. I don’t think it’s the absence of violence, though I do think that casting Cassie as an avenging angel would’ve suited Promising Young Woman’s amplified style just fine. An explanation that eventually satisfied me was that this angle was actually too generous to would-be rapists; my reasoning being that Cassie’s plan is built on the implausible assumption that merely shaming these men – in very private fashion, mind you – would be sufficient as a preventative measure. That feels implausible, and so…the film felt unsatisfactory.
That’s not it, though. Cassie isn’t a perfect protagonist; her invalid assumption doesn’t invalidate the film. Plus, there’s cursory evidence later in the film – Cassie running into one of Adam Brody’s friends from the opening scene, who’s just as rapey as his buddy – that her methodology ain’t exactly perfect.
It took a while to put my finger on my real concern with the film, which was pretty close to that discussed above. You see, even if Promising Young Woman doesn’t share Cassie’s assumption that these men can be shamed out of opportunistic predation, it does implicitly share her assumption that they’re not violent. We see dozens – perhaps hundreds – of tally marks in Cassie’s diary, and yet there’s no indication that she’s faced any violence in her retributive pursuits. You can provide extra-diegetic explanations for this – could Cassie’s near-superheroic skillset and access to funds be paired with martial arts prowess, perchance? – but the more likely explanation is that these “nice guys” just don’t resort to violence when challenged.
That jars, for me, with the film’s representation of rape culture. Those who’ve seen the film will know that I’m tiptoeing around particular details in the film’s climax that acknowledge the filmmaker’s understanding of this issue; this doesn’t stem from any naïveté. But the film’s flirtation with the promise of violence in its marketing and first act clash with its subsequent reluctance to pair male sexual entitlement with its physical aspects. That’s understandable – and almost necessary to avoid backsliding into a rape-revenge narrative from an earlier era – but it proves enough of a sticking point to keep Promising Young Woman from fulfilling its promise.