The only way to understand Promising Young Woman is to skip right to the ending. The film’s mashup of soft-feminine romance with trauma marked by vengeful spite makes for a delicious combination of tonal confusion. There is a lot happening in director Emerald Fennell’s audacious debut and the landscape she builds incorporates many of the messy messages (and backlash) of the MeToo movement, with a viciousness that is thrilling to witness. But while the film has all the right components of an instant classic, it strangely chooses to sit them all next to each other, rather than blending them into a well-flavored stew.
A colorful explosion of femininity and venom, Promising Young Woman tells the story of Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan) quest to avenge her best friend Nina, who died by suicide years earlier, after being raped at a med school party. Cassie’s guilt at not protecting her friend has consumed her life and led her to reckless behavior that she reframes as a righteous crusade. Each night, she goes out to bars, pretends to be too drunk to stand (and more importantly, to consent) then goes home with the first Nice Guy™ who approaches to make sure she’s all right. Then, when their veneer of care gives way to predation, she reveals the ruse, scaring them shitless, and forcing them to confront the depths of their own depravity.
The first time the audience sees this happen—a shocked Adam Brody is taken aback by her sudden lucidity—it serves as the film’s symbolic fist pump. And that dose of pseudo-empowering “yaas queen” messaging serves as an inoculation against the film’s stranger choices later on, priming the audience to go along with Cassie as she makes ever more frustrating decisions. When she finds out that the man who raped Nina is now engaged to be married, she writes herself a “hit list,” targeting the people she thinks most responsible for her friend’s demise.
Part of the fun of the film is that Cassie’s only real power is that she is willing to breach the social contract. In our shitty little world, men menace, and women cower. Instead, Cassie menaces back—emboldened by what could reasonably be considered a form of passive suicidal ideation. When men catcall her in the street, she doesn’t run or flip them off or yell. She simply stares. She stands still and returns the gaze of lecherous men, forcing them to confront that they are well aware that their sexual harassment is a show of power. But Cassie punctures that power by engaging with it. The same is true for her interactions with former friend Madison (Alison Brie), Dean Elizabeth Walker (Connie Britton), and eventually her boyfriend Ryan (Bo Burnham). She doesn’t scream, or cry or plead. She merely addresses the uncomfortable silences between them, making the subtext text again.
After encountering Cassie, these people are psychologically marked— forever doomed to remember the visceral fear they felt when they faced actual and immediate social consequences for trying to take advantage of or ignore the hurt of the vulnerable people in their orbit.
The first thing you should know is that Cassie is good and dead by the end of the film. But the second thing you should know is that as controversial as that ending is, it’s the correct choice for that character. It’s the getting there needs a little bit of work.
The story is fun, engaging, and genuinely riveting, with a pumping soundtrack and bright sunny production design and costuming that perfectly contrasts with the darkness of the plot. From Cassie’s candy-colored manicure to her romcom heroine bangs, the film is visually attuned to the tropes it is teasing and discarding. But Promising Young Woman feels less cohesive the longer you consider it—like the remnants of a dream escaping your grasp the more you try to recall the details. The film’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t actually let Cassie be the bad guy. She gestures at lots of awful things, including the set up to an implied rape that is later debunked and a hit list of men that she merely scares into better behavior. But in order to make its controversial ending stick, the film needed to go full-tilt in the direction of a villainous anti-heroine—a truly righteous cause with deeply questionable methods. Instead, Cassie merely spends the movie poking at the vulnerabilities of the people involved in Nina’s case.
The conflict at the center of the film is Cassie’s need to move on from Nina’s death, forgive herself, and get back to building her own life. When we meet her, she is living with her parents, working at a coffee shop during the day and hunting men at night. Everyone in her life can see that she is aimless and unmoored, and they want nothing more for her than to find a new sense of purpose. So when she starts dating Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnam)— an acquaintance she knew from med school now working as a pediatrician—they are all delighted to see her return to the bubbly, wonderful woman they used to know.
Cassie finds herself falling in love with the delightful and sincere Ryan, and Burnam does an excellent job playing the dream boyfriend, unafraid to make himself look a little silly in order to make her feel good. It’s why the shock of discovering that he was present at Nina’s assault—and that there is video proof—hits Cassie so hard. She had tried to move on as instructed and thought she had found someone to do it with. For Ryan to instead be part of the original sin at the root of her trauma was too much to bring her back from the brink of self-destruction. To her, this is confirmation that no man can be trusted. She no longer has any choice except to go full scorched earth. And so she sets in motion the plan that leads to her gruesome death.
It seems odd to be disappointed that a film’s supposedly feminist protagonist isn’t a murderous misandrist, but it’s the seasoning that would have made this stew sing. Not only was Cassie not killing the men she picked up in bars—many of whom knowingly did or attempted to assault an incapacitated woman—she also doesn’t try to kill Nina’s rapist Al Munroe (Chris Lowell) when she cons her way into his bachelor party. Instead, she opts for a bit of tattooed revenge á la The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. But her mission fails and she is killed, never to be heard from again— if you don’t count the contingency plan she put into place to be enacted in the event of her death.
While it’s satisfying to see a rapist and murderer finally be held responsible for his actions, Cassie’s death is a particularly vicious ending for a character who, all considered, was always one step short of materially harming anyone. At no point does Cassie do more than merely terrify people into confronting the depth of their wrongdoing. While her death felt like the correct and inevitable ending, the film never quite manages to lay the necessary groundwork to make it feel emotionally justified. It’s like long division—they needed to show their work.
In a way, it’s a necessary subversion of the expected “girl power” trope to have Cassie’s quest for revenge be unsuccessful. After all, vigilante justice isn’t a long term corrective to rape culture, regardless of how emotionally satisfying the idea might be. But there isn’t really a point to half measures either. If her pitiful death is meant to indicate the futility of one woman taking on a system, then why still let her win? And if she’s meant to be our blazing heroine, then why not let her live to bask in the glory of her enemy’s defeat?
Cassie’s murder is vicious, final, and unambiguous. The harms she perpetuates are not. Promising Young Woman needed a villainess we could root for—who felt in control of her own demise. For her death to work, Cassie needed to go down in an apocalyptic inferno. Instead she went out with a whimper. Ultimately, the film misses the true stinging bite of constructing Cassie as a one-woman urban legend.
At a distance, other parts of the film also start to feel brittle to the touch. Like why, in all the times Cassie stumbles around in bars pretending to be drunk, doesn’t a single other woman come to her aid? And why is every single man who ever approaches her a rapist? Are there no virtuous bartenders either? I’m hardly the one to Not All Men™ a feminist revenge film, but it feels odd and perfunctory that the story doesn’t even make room for the miniscule possibility of a man’s redemption. Additionally, given that the men she goes home with are literally trying to rape her, it’s odd that none of them ever appear to get violent when she reveals the truth. The whole reason her behavior is dangerous to begin with is because of the threat of male violence. So where is the threat? Even the man who kills her only does so because she attacks first.
It feels unfair to ding a truly ambitious film for merely being ambitious. Writer and director Emerald Fennell crafted a big, bold story that imagined a world in which women could orchestrate circumstances of their own revenge. Cassie’s death is less the result of her own hubris than it is more a willing sacrifice she makes in service of a friend. At the root of this story is an unbreakable bond of friendship between two women that persists even after one of them is long gone. Fennell’s story is precisely the kind of grand, distorted examination of trauma and love that I’d like to see more of. I just wish she’d gone back and patched up all the holes.