SPOILERS FOR PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN BELOW
I wanted Aly to write this review because, generally speaking, our shared critiques of Promising Young Woman will be taken more seriously if they come from her pen than mine. That’s fair. We have multiple generations of people raised with unceasing information thrown at them who therefore seek authentic perspectives to consider (or parrot) because, frankly, our bullshit detectors are on overdrive right now. That’s a fair, if sometimes superficial, instinct. I’d feel the same way.
All I can say is that both Aly and I found PYW to be superficial, ideologically muddled dreck. Emerald Fennell’s execrable pseudo rape-revenge black comedy feels written to be quoted verbatim, and it concludes with a stinger that leaves it as hollow as a Twitter rant by someone with 10 followers and no self-awareness, desperate to be seen by the right people.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan, as good as always) is a barista by day, vigilante by night. Her best friend was gang-raped during a college party and Cassie, left reeling by the ensuing tailspin that took her friend’s life, has sworn vengeance on men who would take advantage of drunk women. She fakes intoxication, goes home with random men and then lectures them about how awful the patriarchy is to make them feel bad. What?
Fennell utilizes cinema’s rape-revenge formula from a distance. Cassie is a bystander whose trauma is second-hand (but no less real). Her solution to violence is not more violence, but rather a toothless form of trickery — a Twitter hero in real life, I guess, with the unfortunate possibility of being raped or killed in the process herself. Toothless, that is, unless her vitriol is trained at fellow women. Her most elaborate efforts are aimed at Madison (Alison Brie), a girl who was cruel to her friend and did not believe her after the rape happened, and Dean Walker (Connie Britton), the face of the school institution that let the rapist, Al (Chris Lowell), off the hook. There’s certainly a take that PYW is saving the worst punishments for women who are bad allies to other women, but seeing as, in the end, Cassie just gaslights them into thinking they or their other loved ones have been raped and then lectures them, well …
The story kicks into high gear when Cassie falls for a hot doctor named Ryan (Bo Burnham), whose history with Al’s crew shines a clear light on where everything will eventually end between them. It’s just a matter of time before twists and coincidences send Cassie on her most dangerous mission yet — to ruining Al’s bachelor party and punish him forever. Things don’t go as planned, and ultimately the only justice meted out comes at the good graces of the police, an organization (rightfully) lambasted throughout the movie. Men won’t stand up for women because toxic masculinity forgives their behavior, Fennell’s script declares … except when the plot twists call for it.
It’s all incredibly superficial, from the soundtrack to the supporting performances to Fennell’s approach to such a hallowed genre of women seeking justice in a system that victimizes them. That Cassie’s conclusion is so dark is not the issue; it’s that Cassie’s efforts are outlandishly ineffectual and ultimately vindicated by the system against which she so ardently and rightfully raged. It’s hard to reconcile that a movie this angry fails to use the term “rape” even once. And that it mostly targets women. And that, in the end, it creates a situation where Cassie’s actions make her ending understandable given the immediate circumstances.
Both of us tried, and failed, to see a larger design at work. Cassie is obviously unhinged by the world she sees as having failed her and her friend. She’s obsessed. Her actions are villainous, even as she spouts true critiques of corrupt systems. So far, so good. Traditional revenge fantasy. Those can go either way. But rarely have they relied so heavily on a finale that entirely contradicts their points.
Is Cassie supposed to be the bad guy here? Is PYW arguing that women who spend their time obsessing over fixing the world around them are, in fact, shrill and useless and doomed to failure? That the system they’re angry about will in fact vindicate them if they play by the rules and create a situation where that system has no choice? Fennell clearly aims her darkest ires at women she sees as insufficient allies to victims, but she also seems to have little respect for Cassie’s character as anything but a mouthpiece and an idiot who would be fine if she’d just shut up and leave people alone. The system works well enough to fulfill elaborate schemes of postmortem retribution. Shut up! Don’t rock the boat. It will be fine eventually. Move on.
In fact, it’s so toothless that I’ve used the word “rape” more in this review than the movie does — which isn’t hard to do because PYW doesn’t directly engage with the subject at any point. The pink, glam-like aesthetic makes PYW unique in a year where most of the movies released lack visual flair. Even a Paris Hilton song feels like manna from heaven. That string quartet cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”? Like hearing God whispering in your ear (although it’s misplaced and misused in the story, building to a moment that is subverted in a violent and unnecessarily cruel way).
There is nothing audacious here, nothing insightful. It’s pop-punk storytelling that’s more pop than punk, instantly retreating into the safest possible space after taking a few big storytelling risks that do not pay off. Not promising, just weak.