Review: Promising Young Woman


Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was once a promising young woman in med school, then when her best friend Nina is raped at a party and the school took no action, Nina and Cassie both dropped out. It's now seven years later, Nina has died by suicide and Cassie enacts her revenge by pretending to be too drunk to stand at bars every week. Inevitably, a man will try to take her home and take advantage of her, only for her to turn the tables on him and lecture them on what they're doing. A former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) comes back into her life and for a moment we think Cassie is finally going to move on. Then something brings her back.

Promising Young Woman has been on my must see list for ages. It got mostly glowing reviews but a few reviewers I'm close with had some serious issues with it, which made me dial back my expectations a bit. Now here I am, 4 days after watching and still trying to put my thoughts together on how I feel about the movie as a whole. Because while I enjoyed parts of this movie immensely, there were a few things that really bothered me that I can't let go.

I can accept that Cassie's plan is very far fetched. The notebook she logs her catches in has some of them marked in red, and we can assume those ended violently. We don't see those moments. There's even one point where Cassie takes a tire iron to a man's car and all he does is drive off. The fact that Cassie isn't harmed during this scene is incredible, and I'm glad that director Emerald Fennell chose not to show this violence. Until she doesn't of course. More on that later. 

I think it was a strange choice to never show Nina as an adult. I get the point Fennell is trying to make, that she was erased in favor of her male attacker, but without her there it leaves this void in Cassie's plan. There's one scene where we meet Nina's mother (Molly Shannon) and she tells Cassie to move on for "all of us." Was she aware of what Cassie has been doing nightly or is it just because of her living/work situation? There was so much missing there. 

Before I get into the ending, which I'll tag with spoilers as that's where the bulk of my issues lie, let's talk about the good, because there is a lot of that. Carey Mulligan is as wonderful as everyone says she is. Even though I can't get behind what Cassie is doing, I was still concerned for her and even amused by some of her less offensive antics (like the long glare she gives those construction workers) I also really liked her banter with Bo Burnham. The costumes were a huge stand out. Cassie dresses like an Easter Egg. I loved all the bright pastels and I really hope this in particular gets recognition at the Oscars. 

This paragraph is going to get SPOILERY so skip to the next if you don't want to read this.****The thing that absolutely threw me for the loop was the ending. Cassie decides to show up at Nina's rapist's bachelor party, drug all his friends, then cuff him to a bed so she can go full Girl With a Dragon Tattoo on him and carve Nina's name into his body. Of course he breaks free, and in an excruciating long take, he suffocates Nina. Her death is the only violence we see on screen. Then immediately afterwards the dialogue between the two men who dispose of her body is played for laughs. This was so jarring to me. Even though this men are committing a crime, they're written in the same light as Bo Burnham's character, who had a lot of funny comments throughout. If Cassie absolutely had to die in this story, why give her killer that levity? It's bad enough that she could've just drugged him like she did everyone else, got her carve on, then left with her life. Thankfully, Fennell does give these characters their comeuppance with some timed texts Cassie set her phone up to send after the fact, but the fact that she put so much trust into a shady lawyer to assist her with that plan just made me anxious. That also could've gone so incredibly wrong. And the cynic in me thinks her killer is going to get off light again. Because yes, he murdered her, but now all his friends are going to tell them they were drugged. The guy whose car she totaled will probably come forward with that account, and Ryan can freely admit he was blackmailed. All of this will work against Cassie. He'll probably get off on self defense. And ultimately what was all of this for? Cassie is dead like Nina. All the men she turned the tables on will see this murder trial play out and probably dismiss their encounters with her as "she's a psycho" and will go on being shitty humans. *** END SPOILERS.

Ultimately I appreciate the effort here more than the execution. It's very well made and provocative, but some of the writing choices were gross. I keep thinking of Michaela Coel's HBO show I May Destroy You that also premiered this year. I just preferred how that was wrapped up. It wasn't tied up with a neat little bow, it wasn't afraid to show how messy its protagonist could be while dealing with her trauma, but it was so honest and not at the expense of anyone else. I just didn't get that with Promising Young Woman

Recommended: Yes - because I'd love to here your thoughts on this.

Grade: C+

Memorable quote: "You can spit in it if you want." - Ryan (Bo Burnham) 

14 comments:

  1. I liked it. I liked it a lot and I guess I never took it too seriously. People deal with trauma differently and I can see this being an option to heal in a way.

    For me it read like a dark fantasy mixed with bubble gum.. as if she is still a kid, stuck in a strange loop of self destruction and not really healing. I feel it has similarities to Nightcrawler but has a different tone, yet the idea of her feels almost the same. She is a shit person and to show her as such, not like a hero, feels brave. I don't know.. I feel like I'm always on the other side with these types of controversial movies. I tend to like them.. because I'm not as easily offended by their nature?
    And coming from personal experience, this kind of sick fantasy works for me.

    (Maybe I've watched too much true crime and I'm immune now)

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    1. I liked it until that penultimate moment. It's not so much that I had an issue with how she dealt with her trauma. I wanted her to get better and move on, but her death just bothered me so much. Her using rape fake outs against other women to teach them a lesson did too.

      It's very thought provoking, I keep going back and forth with it, which is why I gave it the middle grade. lol

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    2. I feel like not all bad stories have a happy ending. This messed her up, the trauma messed her up and the person who was always there for her was gone... I can see her go off and make stupid mistakes and not come out winning.

      If it were a different ending it would have felt more... heroic but she was never meant to be the hero, she was a villain. It's interesting to see how so many hate villain focused movies these days. :/

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    3. I think I would've accepted the ending as is had they not made the men funny. I think that was my biggest issue, it shouldn't have been played for laughs.

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  2. I saw this a few weeks ago in the theater and somehow I still haven't got around to reviewing it. I like it more than you... but I think I appreciate this more than actually loving the film.

    -SPOILER ALERT for commenters -
    Reading your thoughts about the levity around her death is indeed jarring, it should've been handled with care, but the film does market itself as a dark comedy. As for Cassie's death, I read that Fennell was trying to illustrate something more 'realistic' with her revenge story, that someone of Carey's size would not be able to fight off the guys. Part of me thinks that perhaps her death is the only way to get those men the punishment they deserve, though the fact that she's already got the lawyer's attention, there IS a way they could still be punished without her having to die. In any case, it's a thought-provoking film to be sure.

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    1. It's true, it is a dark comedy but they still could've pressed pause for a moment. They did at other serious times.

      Her death sadly is realistic, but the fact that so much of her plan also relied on the men that ruined Nina's life (like the lawyer) just didn't sit well. I would've rather seen her get away with it and actually get to move on. It's likely what Nina would've wanted.

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  3. I do want to see this as I skipped through the spoiler paragraph (thanks for the warning) as I'm just happy to see Carey Mulligan in a meaty role.

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  4. I really appreciate your issues with it - if anything reading reviews on this movie is almost as fascinating as the movie itself!
    I loved it, and that ending had me absolutely shook to the core. I haven't felt so uncomfortable watching a death scene before.

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    1. It was so uncomfortable! I think in a way I would've had less of an issue with it if the men hadn't been painted so comedically. I think that would've helped.

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  5. I am one who always reads the last page of a book which makes me want to see read the book all the more. Usually the same is true with a film but I am not that into seeing this film. Maybe the director's vision and screen writer was to show how male predators will never change and do what they can to keep living the way they do. I like a film to entertain, to make me think and...have a point. This film seems to have none except make me annoyed even by reading your review. She destroyed her life to getting even.

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    1. I get what the director was going for, but I just have a hard time with turning it comedic. I get it fits the tone of the rest of the movie, but I don't know. I'm at a weird place with this.

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  6. Nice review! I agree with you - I appreciated what Emerald was going for - loved the aesthetic and Carrie's performance is wonderful. But Emerald's writing couldn't find a balance between reality and escape, especially to pull off that ending. If Emerald's choice was for Cassie to not survive at all, it still would've been worthy for more audiences to find some sort of catharsis with making other characters relatable, especially Nina who doesn't feel three dimensional. Not sure if you read my letterboxd review, but I agree with you a lot on what you said here. :)

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    1. I did read your letterboxd review! It was excellent. I admire this film a lot but I had such a problem with the comedy element in the ending. I know that's slightly petty but I couldn't get around it. Still, I'm glad it's getting a lot of attention.

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