Editor’s Note: This article contains mentions of sexual harassment and rape and may be triggering for some readers. This article also contains spoilers for the film Promising Young Woman.
Throughout 2020, many films have been put on hold, delayed, or cancelled to help preserve the projection of movie theatres. As we near the award season, companies are releasing films through streaming services and movie theatres. Promising Young Woman is a film that suffered from the pandemic, yet it has gained popularity recently. The film’s initial date, January 25th 2020, was pushed to Christmas. Promising Young Woman is Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut with Carey Mulligan as the lead.
Promising Young Woman unfolds a twisted revenge story. It follows Cassie (Mulligan), a 30 year old medical student drop out, who turns into a vigilante at night. Cassie appears as drunk woman at clubs to attract “nice guys” to take her home. Once things turn sexual without consent, Cassie drops the act and reminds the men about the harm they would cause. Cassie’s motives seem unclear at the beginning, yet the vigilante act soon becomes personal as she begins to target people from her past. Her best friend, Nina, was a victim of sexual harassment in college which caused both women to drop out. Soon, Cassie’s targets become people who failed Nina as a student, friend, and victim.
At first glance, the trailer seems judicial – a savior film, at most. However, Promising Young Woman deliberately has toxic flaws of its own. I, for one, did notice them while I was watching the film, but I was so caught up with the ending that I forgot at the moment. After sitting with my thoughts, I would like to question whether Promising Young Woman is the film the audience wanted it to be? And does it justify Cassie’s actions?
So what exactly are the flaws of the film?
Tell Me Something I Don’t Know
After the effect of the #MeToo Movement and Time’s Up Movement in Hollywood, Promising Young Woman does not reveal anything new. The lack of justices served does feel like a loss of hope but in reality, that is how it is. In the eyes of the law, men are given a slap on the wrist for their sexual harassment. Look at the Stanford rapist, Brock Turner, who served three months out of a six-month sentence in a county jail for his actions. In the eyes of society, women are addressed about the issue as a stranger. The victim, Chanel Miller (who in court went by Emily Doe), reclaimed her story in her memoir Know My Name after the justice system and the media failed her. The absence of support and trust that victims receive from higher authority is callous. From this film, the audience would expect some kind of poetic justice and a call for action. Instead, this is something that Promising Young Woman fails to do.
#Girlboss Gone Wrong
I imagined Cassie to be some sort of an advocate for justice from the potential characterization Cassie gave off from the trailer. The trailer shows multiple men trying to sexually harass Cassie until she preaches about their wrongdoings. I was completely wrong. Cassie raised awareness on sexual harassment (potentially rape) by tricking the female characters. It’s the scenario of “What if that happened to you?” turned into real life without the action of harassment. Cassie got Madison drunk until she could not walk. Afterwards, Cassie’s friend took Madison into a hotel room, so Madison could believe she got raped without remembering.
She did it not once, but twice. The Dean was forced to believe that her teenage daughter was gang-raped by a musical band. When in reality, the Dean’s daughter was sitting at a dinner. She put Madison and the Dean in parallel scenarios that aligned with Nina’s case. The absence of support that Madison and the Dean put on Nina was tested once they went through a feign harassment. Madison knew that Nina was raped by Al Monroe and did not come forward. The Dean chose not to believe Nina which resulted in suspending the investigation.
Cassie’s actions contradict herself. In the film, she asks, “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” yet continues to make women undergo this (simulated) nightmare as a form of perverse justice. Perhaps, that was Cassie’s intention. She is not a character that the audience wanted her to be. It’s a privilege to acknowledge sexual harassment in the entertainment industry and Promising Young Woman did not stand with victims.
Vengeance in Retribution
The ending is shocking and overwhelming. Cassie was the last beacon of justice for Nina. The death of Cassie was such a let down. Cassie suffered in the hands of Al Monroe – Nina’s rapist. Al Monroe demolished not one, but two women. The film presents that victims cannot have justice even after death. Frankly, Nina’s memory died with Cassie. Cassie’s whole existence after Nina’s death was to get revenge on those who contributed to it. Some did, but did Nina’s rapist? Cassie left the evidence on the hands of the US judicial system. A system that is a stranger to serve justice to sexual harassment survivors and victims. A hypothetical situation put with realistic solutions is just another day in the United States.
Carey Mulligan delivered an Oscar-worthy performance in Promising Young Woman. She is destined to receive her second nomination for Best Actress. It’s hard to imagine someone else portray Cassie in such a devious way. Apart from the storyline, Promising Young Woman does have a sweet and sour aesthetic and a vibrant soundtrack. Not to mention, an instrumental version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” composed by Anthony Wills fits right in the film.
Promising Young Woman is a complex film which divides the audience’s opinion into two. The film does have originality. Not many films address sexual harassment like Promising Young Woman. However, did the film acknowledge a form of justice as the audience hoped? In a simple answer, no it did not. The film is Cassie’s story, a character with flaws. She gave herself justice in a way that she would only understand.
Promising Young Woman is available to stream on demand on streaming platforms. The film is currently playing in theatres.
Featured Image via YouTube.