There are no good men left in the world of Promising Young Woman. They are all potential-to-probable rapists or at the very least facilitators to sexual crimes. Promising Young Woman is a very dark film, one where hope, redemption and forgiveness are all but impossible. As such, the praise it has received is simply mystifying to me.
Cassandra Thompson (Carey Mulligan) is a self-appointed avenging angel against sexual assault: weekly going to bars to get picked up by "nice guys" who do not shrink from taking advantage of her seemingly drunken state. The twist is that she isn't drunk but perfectly sober, and once she drops her rouse she berates them before moving on to the next guy.
Move on herself, however, she can't, as she is dead inside thanks to the sexual assault her friend Nina suffered while both were at medical school, an assault that led to Nina's death and her dropping out. Still living at home with no real career plans, things come to a head when Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate who is now a pediatric surgeon comes to the coffee shop she works at. Shy, bumbling and slightly hesitant, he asks Cass out. She agrees to go but still finds herself angry that he suggests early on to go to his place (despite him immediately apologizing for being too forward).
Cass' relationship with Ryan soon starts a chain reaction where the ghosts of Nina's assault come back to her stronger. She forms a plot to strike back at those who enabled Al Monroe (Christopher Lowell) to get away with Nina's rape. It means confronting her frenemy Madison (Alison Brie), Al's former lawyer Mr. Green (Alfred Molina) and even Ryan himself. Cass forces Ryan to reveal where Al's bachelor party will be, where Cass will enact her expertly, almost outlandishly clever, revenge.
As I understand it, many who hold Promising Young Woman as one of the best films of the year find the ending difficult to accept. I figure it has to do with its plausibility, but that is how I felt throughout all of Promising Young Woman. Writer/director Emerald Fennell creates a story that to me seemed not so much contrived but illogical.
Would her drunk routine really work every week? What if another woman or group of women had stepped in? What if a bouncer or barkeep threw her out? What would Cass have done: shooed them away and say, "Hey, I'm trying to catch a potential rapist here?!" What if in one of her sojourns the men, rather than meekly hide behind the "but I'm a nice guy" bit, reacted violently? What if Al hadn't managed to initially escape Cass' initial revenge?
Every element of Promising Young Woman seemed too pat, too sure that everything and everyone would go exactly to plan and on schedule. These people for the most part did not come across as real people but as robots, programmed to do certain things and behave in certain ways. None of it felt real to me. Maybe I'll walk my previous thought back and go with "contrived".
Moreover, Promising Young Woman asks us to if not cheer at least understand someone who doesn't blanch on hiring hitmen and luring teen girls to possible danger.
What I saw in Promising Young Woman was not a revenge thriller but a tragedy. What happened to Nina was monstrous, but Cass was not a Nemesis inflicting divine justice. Rather, she was a shell of a person, damaged but finding no way to deal with the immense trauma and survivor's guilt. She could have gotten therapy. She could have decided to switch from med to law school. She could have become a victims' advocate.
Instead she puts her life in danger to lecture men about not taking drunk girls home with them. Bizarrely, even when she had clear-cut evidence of Al's crime she opted to both not release it and release it. Again, she could have sent the evidence in anonymously or by name, but instead concocted such an elaborate almost wild scheme that made me find her not heroic but almost repellant.
The tone at times seems bizarre: Al's wedding is a very hippie-drippy affair, which seems so wildly out-of-place and character for those involved. Moreover, there doesn't seem to be a reason for the film to show her drunken act twice. Once perhaps to establish her motives, but twice? Add to that the fact that these verbal takedowns are not part of the main plot and you have scenes that lengthen the film.
This is a film that offers no quarter but also no forgiveness save for Green, who is so distraught by his life's work that he essentially hides from the world, forever waiting for that one individual to strike him down. Curiously, when Ryan asks forgiveness for being a witness to Nina's assault (and possibly laughing at the time about it) Cass does not grant what she gave Green.
I was reminded of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. In that novel, ten people are invited to a remote island where one by one they are murdered. The murderer justifies the killings because all of the victims "got away" with their own murders but kills them by degrees of perceived guilt. The first victim is murdered because he had the least amount of moral responsibility, then so on until those whose crimes and guilt are the greatest endure the greatest strain. Same with Promising Young Woman: Green, like the old General who quietly accepts his guilt and awaits his killing, is too waiting for his reckoning, so he gets to live. The others will be punished, if not in this life in the next.
Carey Mulligan has received great praise for her performance, and it is warranted up to a point. Sounding like the sarcastic Mara from the Progressive Insurance ads, Mulligan is technically adept at playing this hollowed-out woman, who had a brief moment where she could feel joy until the brutality of Nina's assault is brought back to her. She's to be commended for a good performance of someone who has died but doesn't know it. Credit to for Burnham also as the walking rom-com cliché of what I've seen described as "Hallmark Hot".
Fennell also should get credit for her use of symbolism, such as early on when after another successful lecture/takedown Cass is seen eating a hot dog while "blood" (or rather ketchup) flows down her leg and arm. It's a little too overt for my tastes, but there it is. As a side note, it is curious that Promising Young Woman's only failed assault happened with a black man. It just kinds of stood out how among all the Anglos the only man who failed to take advantage of a supposedly drunk Cass was black, even if his failure to do so was through unusual circumstances.
Ultimately however, Promising Young Woman shows how Cass is trapped by her own desperate rage. It would have done her better to forgive, if not them at least herself. This is not to suggest that people like Al or those "good guys" who take advantage of women who cannot give consent should not receive punishment. Cass, however, was someone so consumed with hurt, anger and a need to punish that she destroyed herself. I found Cass not a heroine but a tragic figure, one whose life was destroyed with her own consent. I found Promising Young Woman anything but.