A Promising Young Woman Is One of The Darkest Comedies In Recent Years
It’s Also Even Sadder Than You Think it Is
Warning: Spoilers for the movie below. If You haven’t seen it yet, I’m about to basically give away the whole film. That doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t see it, though.
Once asked to describe Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis’ masterpiece about an alcoholic drinking himself to death, star Nicolas Cage described it as a ‘dead man’s suicide note’. Having rewatched it, I think that summary could just as easily describe Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman.
It is generally agreed that this is one of the darkest and best movies made in recent years, led by a masterclass by Carey Mulligan as Cassandra, a woman who spends her nights acting out the kinds of vengeance against potential rapists in her neighborhood, and then enacting a plan to bring about revenge and justice for her best friend who committing suicide in college after being raped and publicly shamed by a fellow student. It’s a perfect movie for the MeToo era (I’m almost positive that’s why Mulligan was cast in the lead role in the recent She Said, a film about the revelations behind Harvey Weinstein) and one of the most brilliant mixtures of horror and comedy I’ve ever seen, rivaling the work of Jordan Peele. Fennell deservedly won an Oscar for the screenplay and as great as Frances McDormand was in Nomadland, I think she would have been fine letting the Oscar go to Mulligan that year.
But rewatching again recently, I can not help think that there may be another, deeper level to the movie that many of us may not immediately get on the first or even the fifth rewatching. That assumes, of course, that many people, particularly of my gender would want to watch again considering how firmly Fennell is in the camp of saying that ‘there are no good men’ out there. I don’t deny I’m not immensely uncomfortable every time I come across it on TV, but that’s generally how some of the best art is supposed to make us feel: if every movie had us walk away feeling warm and fuzzy, there’s a problem with the viewer not the film. And the last time I watched Promising Young Woman, I couldn’t help but feel that everything Cassandra did, from the first moment we see her until the last scene was probably her ultimate plan. Perhaps not vengeance, but… well, let me get to it.
Consider Cassandra’s life when we meet her. I don’t mean what she does at night; I mean what we mere mortals might consider a ‘normal life’. She works at a coffee shop where she can not pay the rent. She’s living with her parents and the relationship is very tenuous. She has no friends, save the owner of the coffee shop she works at, and you get the feeling she had to be forced into that one. In one of the opening scenes, she walks out to breakfast and has to be reminded by her mother that it’s her birthday.
Cassandra has essentially stopped being Cassandra. She has no drive, she has no ties, she doesn’t even think the day she was born matters any more. You actually wonder when she has the time to sleep. The only thing she lives for any more is going out at night, engaging with men who consider themselves nice, getting into a situation where they take her home, she pretends to drunkenly pass out, and she confronts them. Then she goes home, opens her notebook, and puts a notch on it. We never know if that’s the only notebook she’s filled, but it’s a safe assumption there are more of them.
The context is horrible in terms of masculinity. But ask yourself: what is Cassandra looking for? There are no names recorded only checkmarks, which signifies that while she’s keeping count she doesn’t bother to keep a record of the man in question. She clearly has no focus on any of the other people in the bar, as we find out in a scene in the second half of the movie. What is the purpose of her actions? She already knows how horrible men are, and she doesn’t need any more objective proof. She has to know she’s not changing anything as she limits her attention only to her own neighborhood. She even tells one of her ‘victims’ as much. Even a serial killer has more focus in their actions. Cassandra, until Ryan shows up, has no purpose to her actions.
As much as Cassandra would never consider herself one, she is a victim of her friend’s rape and suicide, and there’s an argument that her friends death effectively killed her as much as her friend. She dropped out of med school, has reduced all ‘normal’ human interaction to the bare minimum, and seems determined to stop one man at a time from the same crime that destroyed her friend. (Fennell, of course, does nothing to indicate that any of these men, merely go to another bar in a different neighborhood rather than alter their behavior.)
Now consider Cassandra’s point-by-point revenge. She sets up a friend, Madison (Alison Brie) of hers who was at med school to appear to be the victim of rape. She sets up the daughter of the dean at the college who did everything to whitewash Jeff’s record to appear to be the likely victim of a sexual assault. In neither case does she follow through, which leads us to think that the implication was more than enough.
She is clearly planning for more than that when she has a meeting with the attorney who made sure Jeff’s case never got the inside of a jury. And I have to tell you that scene is the scariest in the entire film. Alfred Molina, in my opinion, should have gotten a Supporting Actor nod for his six minutes in that movie because it is by far the most unsettling scene in the film.
His character is the only one who seems to be ready for Cassandra’s arrival. He welcomes her into his house. He tells her he’s had what his employers claim is a ‘breakdown’ but he knows is an acceptance of his life’s work. His firm’s entire reason for existence seems to have been to debunk rape cases and destroy the victims — he says simply they got bonuses for how many people they destroyed in a year and how much easier it is to do it not. When he finishes, he actually seems to want Cassandra to inflict vengeance on him. And for the first time in the film, Cassandra is hesitant. She walks away: “You’ll just have to live with yourself.” Then she goes outside and at her car is a hulking man asking if she wants him to go through with it. Cassandra seems subdued when she tells him no.
I think at this point in the movie, Cassandra realizes the futility of what she is doing and what she has done. There’s always going to be bars filled with ‘nice guys’ and organizations determined to make sure none of them have to spend a night in jail. And what is she doing it for? The next day, she goes to see her friend’s mother, and she tells her to ‘let it go’ and move on. All the vengeance in the world will never bring her friend back.
Cassandra then tries to have some kind of semblance of a normal life. She goes on dates with Ryan (Bo Burnham) that are more traditional, she introduces them to her parents, she actually seems to be ‘doing better’. There is the briefest of moments when it looks like she might be happy. And then Madison shows up, looking utterly broken. She seems horribly damaged by her encounter with Cassandra and the aftermath, and then she shows her the footage of her friend being raped while her med school students cheer her on — and she sees that Ryan is there.
From that point, I think Cassandra is going on what amounts to a kamikaze run. Sure, she’d been plotting vengeance for her friend, and everything prior had been based on her making that trip to her bachelor party. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think finding Ryan is as much of a monster as Jeff has finally confirmed what she has suspected: there is truly no such thing as a good man. Combined with what the attorney has told her, she now has nothing left to live for.
The final scenes are in a sense, a triumph — Cassandra getting her vengeance from beyond the grave. But I think at the end of the day she had no intention of coming back alive. All she had left was revenge, and what was the point of living in this world that had nothing for her? The fact that she was essentially leaving her parents without their daughter is, in a way, selfish and self-centered. She knows first-hand what the loss of a child can do to their parents, and yet she has no problem doing the same to hers.
Her last words to Jeff are an acknowledgement that he ended Cassandra’s life as much as he did her friends. In that sense, I think there’s an argument that she let Jeff kill her. Not only because she wanted to make sure the full course of vengeance against everyone who wronged her was meted out — as it clearly was — but because she had no reason to live when it was over. I think even if she had successfully carried out her vengeance on Jeff, she would have made sure she was dead at the end of the day. What reason did she have to live now that her life’s work was finished?
I don’t know if Fennell had this in mind when she wrote Promising Young Woman but either way, its another layer to the story she was telling. It makes it crystal clear — as if we truly had any doubt by the end — that rape causes ripple effects that go far beyond the lives of the victims, and that the damage is far deeper to our psyche than we ever considered. It certainly gives another reason to rewatch this extraordinary film, even if you disagree with my analysis of Cassandra’s behavior, and it shows just how powerful a movie it is.