Review: In Promising Young Woman, There’s No Such Thing as a Good Man
Content warning: sexual assault.
The rape-revenge genre is one that’s exceedingly hard to not mess up. The vast majority of these movies should never be made, as they either treat sexual assault as a means to objectify the survivor, or else they lean into the idea that trauma is empowering, or some other trope that makes it clear the people telling the story have no idea how to treat this subject with the respect it deserves. Promising Young Woman ambitiously takes on the genre and if it succeeds, it’s because it allows itself to be messy. There are no heroes in this movie, only people making choices, for better or (usually) for worse.
In Promising Young Woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends her weekends acting as a one-woman crusade to take down rapists and rape culture and to punish the men who perpetuate it. She spends her evenings in bars, pretending to be too drunk to sit upright, let alone consent to sex. Yet week after week, there’s some self-proclaimed “nice guy” guy who takes her home and tries to have sex with her, at which point she reveals her sobriety and revels in their shame.
Cassie has made this ruse her sole purpose in life. Once a—yup—promising young woman, she dropped out of med school and is now living with her parents and working as a barista (in what she calls a shitty coffee shop but also Laverne Cox is her boss so that part doesn’t seem all that bad). This is the life she chose for herself and she did so in an attempt to avenge her best friend Nina, who was raped when they were in medical school together. No one believed Nina, from their classmates to the administrators, who chose to protect the potential of the boy responsible rather than investigate or punish him.
Cassie says she has repurposed her life in service to her friend but it’s obvious to everyone but her that this is not about Nina. We never even see Nina. Taking on Nina’s trauma as her own doesn’t help anyone, it’s actually a pretty selfish thing to do, and Cassie is clearly in a state of arrested development. Her choices are not aspirational but that doesn’t mean they aren’t sickly satisfying to watch.
That satisfaction comes from the film’s intensely stylized aesthetic. This is writer/director Emerald Fennell’s (currently playing Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown) directorial debut and she definitely established a trademark style. The movie has a high-femme gloss and a soundtrack of bangers that make Promising Young Woman feel at home with female-led action films like Atomic Blonde or Birds of Prey, even if all the “action” here is psychological.
Carey Mulligan’s performance in this movie is a career standout in an already illustrious career, handling the humor here as deftly as the tragedy. And the casting of the men around her is cutely clever. Fennell brought in some of Hollywood’s most quintessential Nice Guys (Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, Bo Burnham) for a movie where the prevailing message seems to be that there’s no such thing as an actual good man.
Promising Young Woman is the kind of move that was designed to be divisive—to stir the pot and start some capital-d Discourse. The rape-revenge formula here is pretty straightforward, which will look subversive to some but others will no doubt see as regressive. The ending is a wild ride—a definite love-it-or-hate-it finale—that we’ll have to dig into at a later date. The ethics of this movie are a deliberate mess and the discussions that are bound to arise from that are maybe as exciting to me as the film itself.
Promising Young Woman has a release date of December 25th, so you can spend Christmas watching Carey Mulligan shame sexual predators. Happy holidays indeed.
(image: Focus Features)
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