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TW/CW: The following piece contains references to sexual assault.
This review contains spoilers.
When Focus Features released the trailer for “Promising Young Woman,” writer-director Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut, the film’s premise seemed… well, promising. In a chilling, saccharine sequence, the trailer introduced Cassie (Carey Mulligan): a med-school dropout on a mission to avenge her friend Nina’s rape and instill fear in the hearts of would-be sexual predators everywhere. From this preview, the movie seemed to have all the elements of a modern feminist classic. A militant take on dismantling rape culture? Check. A determined, nuanced female protagonist? Yup. A scalding denunciation of the self-proclaimed “nice guys” who take advantage of women when nobody’s looking? Definitely.
Yet when the full film was finally released, “Promising Young Woman” failed to deliver on all counts — offering only a reductive and tonally incoherent narrative with a harmful message around violence, survival and justice.
“Promising Young Woman” initially draws in viewers by presenting a compelling, refreshingly ruthless protagonist in Cassie. Her crusade against sexual violence opens with a ruse we learn she’s repeated many times: She acts fall-down drunk in a bar so that supposedly well-meaning men will take her home, then turns on them when they try to assault her. With ominous shots of Cassie returning home the next day and adding a tally to a notebook full of them, Cassie is implied to be some kind of feminist “Dexter,” exacting bloody vigilante justice. This, on its own, is a positive step away from the “rape revenge” genre popular in the 1970s, which generally began with gratuitous depictions of rape. “Promising Young Woman” resists this tendency to subject viewers to unnecessary, exploitative depictions of sexual violence that set up a later rampage, and instead skips straight to Cassie’s revenge mission.
Unfortunately, though, the feminist innovation essentially ends there. By framing Cassie as a bloodthirsty avenger yet inverting the tropes of the rape-revenge genre, the film could have still had a substantive message. Instead, Cassie’s character — originally presented as cunning, focused, and touchingly loyal to Nina — is continually undermined by the film’s narrative progression, becoming increasingly inconsistent and one-dimensional.
First, while the film initially implies that Cassie exacts violent revenge on the predators from bars who take her home, successive scenes reveal she really just warns them to stop and then goes on her way. This could be viewed as a criticism of the eye-for-an-eye ethos of rape-revenge stories, which often deprive their heroines of the chance to substantively process trauma and push them towards blunt violence. Yet Cassie is never seen explicitly processing her trauma; she just ghosts through her parents’ McMansion and wanders around town. The film becomes a portrait of a woman whose life has been stunted by trauma without actually unpacking or developing her interiority.
Furthermore, the movie doesn’t actually portray Cassie’s non-violent tactics as effective: After Cassie goes home with Jerry (Adam Brody) and does her routine, a later encounter with his friend reveals that Jerry told other men about it and, rather than reflecting on his predatory behavior, depicted Cassie as crazy.
Even as it tries to portray Cassie as a woman on the edge of a breakdown, the film never strays from an image of camera-ready perfection. Whether she’s wandering her house or stalking her targets, she’s always fully made-up, put-together, and styled to the max, a costumed character in a glossy fantasy rather than a living, breathing person whose inner life is increasingly chaotic. The unrelenting perfection adds to the film’s tonal disconnect — it cobbles together light moments in bright setpieces, long gaps of suffocating stillness, and dreamlike sequences of Cassie drifting through fields to confusing effect, making it nearly impossible to keep track of her goals. At a moment when Cassie has supposedly reached her psychological breaking point, she dresses up as a sexy nurse — as if we are to believe that she has completely snapped under the weight of the patriarchy but still had a perfect male-gaze-maximizing costume ready. The film’s cinematography, costuming, and makeup, while polished, thus add to the dissonance of the film.
After all this, though, it is the last act of the film that really destroys its credibility as a feminist pièce de résistance. Cassie finally decides to exact violent revenge on Nina’s attackers, diverting back to the convention of the rape-revenge genre. But the movie never reaches the classic fever-pitch rampage sequence — instead, the ending is anticlimactic, underwhelming, and doesn’t begin to do justice to the cause the film is centered around.
Ultimately, Cassie and her targets face drastically different consequences — but audiences are still supposed to be satisfied that justice is served because (some of) Nina’s attackers get arrested. This supposedly-triumphant ending relies on a starkly unrealistic view of the U.S. justice system. In truth, the rapists’ arrest is only the beginning of a long and complex legal process that has been shown time and time again to favor perpetrators and minimize the impact of their actions. According to RAINN, for the estimated 13% of rapes that are reported to police and referred to prosecutors, only 7% lead to a felony conviction (meaning nearly half of defendants are acquitted.) Yet viewers are still supposed to trust that the perpetrators will be held accountable because the movie ends with them in cuffs.
This glorification of the criminal justice system ties in with another glaring problem in “Promising Young Woman.” Almost everyone in the movie, including Nina’s rapists, is white — with the exception of Laverne Cox, whose talent is woefully underutilized as she’s relegated to a stereotypical sidekick role. Yet the film never grapples with their privilege or how it enables their actions. It’s structural racism, as well as patriarchy, that insulates Nina’s rapists from consequences, both legal and social.
Ultimately, “Promising Young Woman” leaves viewers wondering what it’s trying to say. Superficially, nobody wins — but, really, some do. Pitted against rape culture, the women involved literally die; the men go on living. When asked why Cassie couldn’t survive, Fennell told Vulture, “I just didn’t understand how that would happen without it being…. incredibly depressing… What happens after you’ve done that stuff? Your life’s still ruined.” This is the core problem with “Promising Young Woman:” it sets up violence as the only true catharsis, portraying all other measures as insufficient, and then concludes that, since Cassie used violence, she must die. The only catharsis is martyrdom.
During a time when the #MeToo movement and widespread cultural shifts have opened spaces for survivors to speak, hold perpetrators accountable, and process trauma, this film allows Cassie (and the absent Nina) to do none of the above. Despite Mulligan’s solid performance, she has little to work with given a script that fails to invert genre tropes or give depth to its protagonist. “Promising Young Woman” offers little by way of social commentary; instead, it reveals only that nuanced, women-led stories about trauma and recovery (stories like Michaela Coel’s moving “I May Destroy You”) are still far too rare in Hollywood.
— Staff Writer Harper R. Oreck can be reached at email@example.com.
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