Spoilers and some sensitive content below!
I’ve seen countless people calling Promising Young Woman a revenge movie, but I think that kind of oversimplifies and discounts an otherwise well-done and layered movie. This movie is as much about holding a mirror up to the people who look the other way in the face of wrongdoing as it is about the victim of said wrongdoing getting revenge.
In Promising Young Woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends her nights at bars pretending she is too drunk to walk, let alone get home. This always seems to prompt the “nice guy” at the bar to give her a ride to his apartment. The guys’ intentions aren’t to gently tuck her in to bed where she will wake up well-rested and ready to head home the next morning. It’s much more nefarious, whether they realize it or not.
Cassie’s nightly routine includes revealing that she is, in fact, completely sober. She then asks what they think they’re doing and if they actually know anything about her or if they’re just looking for a quick hookup (spoilers – it’s the latter, every time). Each one of these guys insists that they’re a nice guy, but their exchange with Cassie always reveals that, of course, they’re disgusting snobs.
We hear the whole spectrum of “men are pigs” quotes from, “she’s asking for it,” to, “what, you can’t take a joke?” to, “I’m a nice guy!” and, “why do girls have to ruin everything?!” Cassie is so skilled at getting the men to reveal their true character. In her fake drunk state, she repeatedly says “no” as they continue with their advances, but they continue anyway.
This creates a beautiful irony because as soon as she drops the drunkenness act and goes on the offensive, the guys immediately lose their confidence and are literally and figuratively backpedaling. They start going on about how this could ruin their life and so on and so forth. Obviously, none of it is legitimate. They just know they’re caught and screwed.
But Cassie isn’t interested in legal repercussions (at least not in the beginning). She’s just wants men to understand what it’s like when the shoe is on the other foot. Because the catalyst for all of this behavior was her best friend Nina being raped when they were in med school years earlier. This eventually led to Nina committing suicide. Cassie’s anger and undying pursuit of justice is because she wants others to understand the lasting damage they can cause without even realizing it, because the majority of the time, the attitude is one of indifference.
There is one specific expertly-done scene that is a microcosm of this whole idea where Cassie confronts the Dean of the college that did nothing when the accusations were leveled against Nina’s rapist. In this scene, the Dean gives about every excuse for inaction that there is. “We get one or two of these accusations per week.” “She was drunk.” “What would you have me do, ruin a man’s life every time there’s an accusation like this?” “Innocent until proven guilty.” “Benefit of the doubt.”
Cassie hits back with the dagger of, “I guess it feels different when it’s someone you love.” Such indifference is expressed way too often and is frequently the justification for inaction. This one scene demonstrates this as well as or better than any other scene in the movie, and it is even more poignant because the Dean is a woman. Up until this point, Cassie had only confronted twenty- or thirty-something guys. But a woman justifying the way the situation was handled makes it even more infuriating.
For a portion of the movie, it seems like Cassie will learn that not all guys are terrible, or at least the percentage is lower than she presumes. She reconnects with a former friend from college, Ryan (Bo Burnham, whose casting is weaponized perfectly), who was one of her med school classmates. They begin a relationship that seems to be right out of a sweet romcom for a bit. And the movie leans into the fun and carefree tone so much that at least for some time, you think Cassie and Ryan could end the film in a permanent relationship.
But this hopeful feeling only lasts until we find out via video that Ryan played a part in the transgressions against Nina. “I really thought for a second it was all gonna be okay,” Cassie says.
When she confronts Ryan about the video, she gets more of the same. “I was a kid!” “So you’re perfect? You’ve never done anything you’re ashamed of?” It’s just more blatant attempts to sweep something unforgivable under the rug with false equivalencies and deflections. Worst of all, when she threatens to send the video to everyone Ryan knows, including his employer, he says, “I don’t think I can live with the threat of this hanging over me,” which is the nail in the tone-deaf coffin.
Finally, Cassie confronts the rapist himself and he just gives more excuses. “Maybe [Nina] regretted it after,” he says, though she was too drunk to move in the moment. The biggest eye-opener statement from the rapist is when he says, “It’s every guy’s worst nightmare, getting accused like that!” to which Cassie rightfully replies, “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”
This exchange is the last in a long line of pathetic attempts for the guys to play the victim. It’s obvious he knows what he did was wrong, but it’s also obvious he has absolutely no remorse. He’s just scared of others finding out what he did.
And they do. Everyone finds out, but only after he kills Cassie as she tries to fool him like she’s fooled so many other men. This time, it seems like he may be feeling some remorse, but again, it’s more guilt due to the knowledge that he could be found out. His best friend despicably tries to comfort him and cover up the murder by saying, “This is not your fault. You did nothing wrong.” Ironically, the consolation is much like the interaction you’d guess Cassie had with Nina all those years previously.
This movie’s ending is the main reason it’s being sold as a revenge movie, because Cassie causes all those who wronged her and, more importantly, Nina to get their comeuppance. But there is so much more to it than that. It holds a mirror up to everyone in the audience. Not just those who have something terrible to be guilty about, but to those who have stayed silent in some way. It’s a desperate plea to speak up and believe those who do.
It’s even more impressive that the message is presented in the way it is. The whole film has this easily-digestible sugar coating over it. Some of the marketing made me worried it would be violent or physically torturous, but there is none of that. Its R-rating comes solely from the subject matter. It’s such a credit to first time director Emerald Fennell who I honestly believe crafted a masterpiece with Promising Young Woman.
This movie is so much more than a revenge thriller, even if it has those elements. It’s a desperate, yet confident and competent plea to both listen and speak up.