“Promising Young Woman” may not be so promising
March 21, 2021
Warning: this article contains spoilers along with mentions of sexual assault and suicide.
Promising Young Woman continues to trend on the iTunes “Top 25 Movies” chart and received 4 Golden Globes nominations.
Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, and Alison Brie, Promising Young Woman tells the story of a med-school drop out (Cassie) working in a coffee shop by day, and entrapping men by night. She feigns unconscious intoxication to catch predators in order to overcome an unspecified trauma involving her best friend (Nina).
It is made clear that she is attempting to dismantle a society in which becoming a victim of sexual assault is effortless. She does this by confronting one predator at a time. This is an exceedingly dangerous act as she constantly puts herself in vulnerable situations, allowing herself to be taken home by potential rapists.
When she falls in love with an old college acquaintance (Ryan), it seems as if she has left her strange hobby behind her. But, when it is then revealed that the man who is the source of the trauma she suffered moved back to her town and will be soon married, a quest is incited within her to seek revenge on him once and for all.
As the movie progresses, it is revealed that the man and his friends drugged, raped, and recorded the protagonist’s late best friend as a sort of cruel joke. The victim filed a lawsuit, but was bullied into dropping the case by members of a corrupt legal system. It is then implied that she committed suicide, and left the protagonist on a downward spiral ending with her quitting the school they all went to and moving in with her parents.
The movie climaxes when she obtains concrete evidence of the assault and discovers her love interest was in the audience. She severs ties with him, sending the message that he does not deserve forgiveness, nor do any people who have been complicit bystanders, accomplices, or even cheerleaders to such a heinous crime. The protagonist continues on to dress as a prostitute and crash the bachelor party of the rapist. She handcuffs him to a bed and attempts to torture him, only to be murdered in retaliation. Her body is hidden, and it seems to be the end of the crusade for justice.
Until the rapist (and now murderer) is arrested during his wedding, and the ex boyfriend receives pre-written texts promising his demise.
So what does this all mean?
When I, unbeknownst to the plot beforehand, first saw the movie, I was shocked. The film speaks to the strong truth of sexual assaulters getting away unscathed, yet ends with a twist of revenge and retribution years after the crime. The only issue is, the one person determined to seek true justice dies in her attempt.
The film is powerful yet melancholy. I was left with a sick feeling in my stomach – but maybe that was on purpose.
The female revenge genre is difficult because while the intention behind the movies is to be empowering, most end up falling victim to criticism of cliche content or weak execution. It feels as though these films receive extreme scrutiny that is often undeserved.
Kill Bill (volumes 1 and 2) is the most well known female revenge saga. Since its initial glory and limelight, however, information regarding the relationship between Quentin Tarantino, the director, and Uma Thurman, a writer and the star actress, has put many people off of the movies.
15 years after their releases, Thurman told of her experience filming the movies – including Tarantino forcing her to work through an almost fatal car crash, stories of the director spitting on and choking her in the place of actors during certain scenes, and “dehumanization to the point of death”.
This raises the ironic question as to if we should continue to patronize those two films.
The reason behind Promising Young Woman’s success, I believe, is largely credited to its director, Emerald Fennell. While female directors are already uncommon, it is all the more powerful that she directed such an unprecedentedly bold film. She deserves the credit for the development of such a troubling plot with an even more difficult subject matter.
If Fennell’s goal was to strike her audience in a deep manner that leaves them thinking days after watching the movie, then by all means she succeeded. But was this the ideal outcome of the film?
Many sexual assault survivors have vocalized their dislike and discontent with Promising Young Woman. It has been said that the film picks at the sore scabs of their trauma. Especially because only about 3% of rapists face conviction. The list of rape victims who never receive justice grows by the thousands every year. It is said that Promising Young Woman inaccurately portrays an idealistic world in which the only justice a woman can get is revenge served 7-years cold.
Overall, Promising Young Woman is an intelligently directed movie thats viewing may force some sexual assault victims to suffer the consequences of unresolved trauma. It is a plot full of twists and turns that ends in a deep and dark place for the revenge-seeking protagonist, but a just place for the late rape victim. (That is, as just as a place can be for a rape and suicide victim).