PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

Paul Mendoza


I didn’t know too much about this film before I watched it. I knew it was about female revenge over guys targeting drunk women at bars, taking them home and taking advantage of them. I wasn’t sure how far the revenge would go or where the film would go. There have been many types of vigilante films to come down the pike. Most of these films are about a man taking revenge on one or more people that have done him wrong. There are some that are about a man who snaps and goes on a spree of righteous justice. Death Wish (1974) is perhaps the most famous. Paul Kersey’s (Charles Bronson) wife and daughter are brutally raped in home invasion, the wife dies and the daughter is so traumatized she recedes into a vegetative state. when it becomes obvious that the police will not find and catch the perpetrators Kersey doesn’t go after them specifically but starts patrolling bad neighborhoods in hope of running across criminals that he then shoots and kills. He becomes popular with the public and a thorn in the side of the cops so much so that when he’s finally caught instead of arresting him they just let him go and tell him to leave town. He’s a hero. In Falling Down (1993) William Foster (Michael Douglas) divorced and recently unemployed has a breakdown that begins on a traffic filled Los Angeles freeway and follows him across the city to Venice Beach. He comes across many situations that we all encounter and responds like we sometimes wish we respond; with anger and violence. Its the kind of behavior we have been witnessing recently with ant-maskers, pro-Trumpers who have acted out their frustrations. Foster’s acting out, at first, is applauded and elicits laughs. The audience rally around him until the incidents start getting darker and darker. When he’s finally confronted on the Venice pier by the detective who has been on his tail, Foster asks “I’m the bad guy?”. It forces the audience to ask the same question of themselves. How far is too far? What actions can be rationalized as appropriate and are we capable of determining that for ourselves?

Far fewer films have been made where a woman is the vigilante. There is Ms 45 (1981) a very low budget film directed by Abel Ferrara. Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004) has The Bride (Uma Thurman) avenging the murder of her fiancee and herself and her unborn child. She survives and hunts down those responsible one by one and killing many others along the way. It is ultra violent but in a action film way, it’s unrealistic and so not as disturbing. She’s the hero! She wins in the end. She even discovers her baby was unharmed and alive and they drive off together into the sunset.

Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell, is a very dark comedy about a woman whose acts of retribution are realistic which raises the stakes, not only for the character but also the viewer. It also doesn’t sidestep the consequences of such actions. Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is 30, lives with her parents and works in a coffee shop. She had been in medical school and was going to be a doctor but something happens that causes her to drop out. Now she goes to bars and pretends to be drunk and incapacitated and waits for some guy to offer to ‘take care’ of her. She plays along until she stops and reveals that she is indeed sober. It seems a harmless enough form of revenge though one that is dangerous not knowing how some guy will react. This seems to be her life until she runs into an old classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham), who has gone on to become a pediatric doctor. He had a crush on her in school and asks her out. She wants no part of him but he proves persistent and charming and she relents. We learn that what happened to make her drop out of medical school didn’t directly happen to her but her childhood friend, Nina. She was drunk and raped at a college party. The school called it a he said/she said and no action was taken against the young man. It’s not directly said but insinuated that Nina never recovered and committed suicide. when Cassie sees that the young man who raped Cassie is getting married and seems to have everything in life he ever wanted Cassie constructs a plan of revenge against all those that she blames for Nina’s death. Her newfound relationship with Ryan complicates things. She starts rethinking her plan and is being hope and promise of happiness for herself which she had given up on. Then, something unexpected happens which resets everything and sets the table for a horrifying final act.

This is a powerful film. Emerald Fennell has created a truly original film that will have people talking. Carey Mulligan is excellent and gives an Oscar worthy performance. The entire cast which includes Bo Burnham, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina and Laverne Cox are all superb in support. It is funny, gallows humor. It is chalIenging and may not be what you want or expect but don’t let that keep you away from seeing it. highly recommend it.

****SPOILER ALERT****

Watching this movie I wasn’t sure if Cassie was killing the men she met in the bars or not. I was expecting that but happily surprised that she wasn’t. That is why I say that the film is more grounded in reality. What Cassie does by pretending to be drunk and allowing a guy to try and take advantage of her is something that might happen. I had an ex girlfriend who did something like this once so it rang true to me. When Cassie puts in motion her master plan to get even with those she felt were responsible for Nina’s death I thought, “OK. Here is where it turns violent.” But it doesn’t. What she does to Alison Brie and Connie Britton’s characters are awful but are psychological only. She’s teaching them a lesson but she doesn’t become what she hates. Her relationship with Ryan also plays a role in this. She is hopeful again. She trusts again. She falls in love with Ryan and that changes her mind about going any further. But when he turns out to have had a role, albeit, a bystander, in Nina’s rape, it devastates her and pushes her past a point of no return. Her final step, which is to pretend to be the stripper at Nina’s rapist’s bachelor party and carve Nina’s name on his body is bold and dangerous but she had no plan to kill him. When he gets the upper hand on her and ends up killing her I was shocked. She is the hero here, right? She’s not supposed to die. It’s a gut punch. But she knew the risks and that she might be killed trying this. So she had a plan in place that pointed the police to her killer. He is arrested at the wedding! She had text message preset to all of the wedding guests including Ryan. So she ends up achieving her goal in getting them all but she has sacrificed her life to do it. This is a very brave ending. Endings are the hardest thing to pull off. A bad ending can really tarnish a good film. This ending ensures that Promising Young Woman will stand out from the pack. I’m sure it’s controversial but that’s alright. Any film that stirs up talk and disagreement is a good film.

The Ryan character is the closest to a ‘good’ male represented in the film. He really is likable. He really likes Cassie and he earns her affection and trust. He’s funny and understanding and silly and he loves her. It makes it all the more heartbreaking when she sees that video of Nina being raped and discovers that Ryan was there. He begs for forgiveness, it was ten years ago he was a kid, but there can be no forgiveness. A lot of thoughts went around my head about this character. I thought how terrible it was that the film depicts such a ‘good guy’ as being morally corrupt. Is it saying that NO man can be trusted? ALL men have done bad things? What else had Ryan done in his life that was bad? Maybe nothing? We don’t know but is it possible for someone seemingly so wonderful to have taken part, even as a bystander, in a rape? It really makes you think about yourself and people you know. And it makes you think a bout what women are subjected to and how difficult it must be to trust a man.

This is the kind of film that would have been perfect to see in the theater with a group of friends. The after film discussion would have been amazing. I have not read any reviews yet and so I will now do that. I am curious to see what’s being discussed. I highly recommend the film again. And watch it with some friends so you can get a good discussion going after. It would be interesting.