Trigger Warning: This article contains strong language and sensitive themes
The novelty of a night out for many women has often turned into something more sinister than just a drink and dance. Trusting in that one “nice guy” who may have fought off potential predators, all the while being one himself. The wolf in sheep’s clothing will bravely carry the drunk girl home and inevitably take advantage of her, however, in Emerald Fennell’s Oscar nominated film ‘Promising Young Woman’, the tables are turned when it is revealed that the girl was never drunk at all. Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) was only playing at being drunk as a trap to lure in such men who will now face the consequences of their actions.
The film follows Cassie on her mission to avenge the death of her close friend Nina, who was raped by fellow classmate AI Monroe (Chris Lowell). Not only does Cassie aim to tackle the main perpetrator but she also seeks out everyone who was either involved or complicit in AI’s actions. She seeks those who dismissed Nina’s claims, those who failed to properly investigate her case and those who knew more than they let on. The film is an interesting commentary on rape culture and how everyone’s role, no matter how minor, contributes massively to the acceptance of these environments.
The film seems to make great nods to a variety of cinematic tropes for example the rom-com elements between Cassie and Ryan’s (Bo Burnham) relationship. Presenting us with a seemingly perfect romantic interest who is not all he seems to be. When interviewed about the film, Mulligan talked about this genre of film, stating that:
‘so many romantic comedies [are]told from the guy’s perspective, who has to get the really hot girl really drunk to persuade her to have sex with him, because sober she wouldn’t go home with him… it was totally normal… I never thought: “Oh, that’s actually quite fucked up”.’
Since the film seems to merge various genres of film (rom-com, thriller, horror), Fennell intended to try and subvert the audience expectations. Though at one point they may believe they understand where the film will lead, the genre switches to catch them off guard.
Considering the serious and dark nature of the film’s themes, there’s a carefully balanced tone throughout, particularly with Cassie. Though she is the anti-hero of the film and her behaviour might make her seem more villainous – her colourful pink and blue wig reminiscent of Harley Quinn attire – she is someone dealing with her own trauma. A depiction I found rather interesting when watching was how Cassie, despite all the understandable rage she must being feeling, isn’t violent towards the men who bring her home but instead tries condemning and warning them about their behaviour. And yet this tactic is useless, since Jerry proceeds to tell other men about Cassie’s façade and brands her as crazy. It is interesting to think that if this film was told from any other perspective, we would perhaps see Cassie in the same vein. This idea seems to be explored by the end of the film, where Cassie, having disguised her way into AI’s bachelor party as a stripper, is killed by AI. From this moment on, we’ve now lost our protagonist and the film has switched to AI’s narrative. Cassie is now just another disposable sex worker whose narrative is almost stolen until AI is ultimately arrested.
Though fiction, ‘Promising Young Woman’ is not far from reality. The film seems to fittingly echo recent UK protests surrounding violence against women – particularly that of Sarah Everard. The notion that the victim is unable to have their voice and so others shall speak for her is what Cassie takes in her stride. However, the lack of the victim’s voice in this film perhaps brings down the feminist message and overall aims. What was a harrowing story about Nina’s sexual assault, has now been turned into a revenge plot which takes focus away from Nina. It is all about Cassie and what she must do avenge her friend, despite the Nina’s family discouraging her efforts.
Film critic, Stephanie Zacharek, believes that women ‘deserve better movies than this one’. Zacherak felt that the film was ‘lip-gloss misanthropy packaged as feminist manifesto, clever but not smart, cynical without being perceptive or particularly passionate.’ And though I did enjoy the sentiments Fennell and Mulligan were trying to convey, it did perhaps feel as though it lost focus as if the film was trying to juggle too much.
The very title of the film ‘Promising Young Woman’ is a twist on the phrase ‘promising young man’ which is said about boys who have committed heinous crimes despite how much ‘promise’ they should to their future. Although I find the twist somewhat witty and charming, it does make me feel as though she is being slotted into this ‘bad boy’ position instead of turning this situation into something more positive. It appears there is no room for healing Cassie – she is on one long road to revenge that will reach a dead end. Some critics have also deemed this ‘vigilante’ film as an echo to the #MeToo movement, which at its early beginnings was filled with this same anger and obsessive frustration.
What I will say, despite some of my grievances, the film certainly raises awareness and provokes conversation. For women watching, they may feel their stories are being heard and tackled – no longer thinking they need to just accept what has been normalised. There’s a mutual feeling of pain felt between the film and viewer, that even men can start to empathise with. I suppose time will only tell if films like this will hold much affect at all in a climate still hindering women.
Written by Sophie Alexander – Entertainment Editor
Header Image by Christos