We watched Promising Young Woman so you don't have to
We begin at a nightclub. Very intense use of charli xcx’s ‘Boys’. The female gaze (badly framed dick shots). The first few lines of the film set the tone for the whole movie, which would usually be good filmmaking except the lines are:
A man says 'She's asking for it'. Seth from the OC tries to take makeup off Cassie (our leading lady) a la Bradley Cooper auditioning Lady Gaga.
The set-up: Cassie acts drunk and waits for ‘nice guys’ to take her home to sexually assault her. She then sits up straight and puts on an affected revenge voice (kinda Old Hollywood gay icon) to say ‘gotcha’ I'm not drunk - now you can't rape me! We get a needle drop (offbrand Florence and the Machine singing ‘It’s Raining Men’) and she’s strutting down the street with red liquid dripping down her. It’s food, not blood (groan). This film is not going to give us the violence we want - instead it's going to give us something much worse.
Cassie walks home and some builders catcall her, of course. She goes to work at a coffee shop and Laverne Cox is her boss/black trans bestie/only other female character in this film that isn’t dead or villainous. Please someone put her in a better film and take that septum piercing off her )c: Cigarettes after sex on the decks. Visual style of a micro budget queer web series. On to the next slapstick rape scene (honestly that makes it sound much more interesting than it is). Who’s that - it’s McLovin’!
He's McMansplaining David Foster Wallace like irl twitter…..:/
Women will literally go out every night to entrap potential rapists rather than go to therapy
The big reveal: when Cassie catches the guys about to rape, she tells them off. Yep, that’s it. Cassie, proving that she was formerly acting too drunk to converse, asks her new boy: 'what do I do for a living?' to show that he wasn’t listening to anything she says. Women: they love networking! McLovin is too thrown off by her scolding to try anything, because rapists will famously take no for an answer. She leaves unscathed and sets to work updating a binary of rapists and non rapists in her journal, to show the audience that she’s been doing this for a while.
Cassie is 29, dropped out of medical school and lives in her parents’ large house. This is seen as a huge failure, probably because our director is a descendant of the literal British colonial elite. Bo Burnham comes to Cassie’s workplace to pester her, and tells a gay joke; they both laugh. This is a hostile work environment for Laverne :( Bo says a guy's name a bunch of times and there’s some spooky music. Here we go: it’s the name of the man who raped Cassie’s best friend from medical school, Nina, who then killed herself after not being believed/being victim-blamed. So we have a dead rape victim, who exists solely as the motivator for Cassie’s actions.
Next, Cassie uses the tactics of a date rapist against a woman she went to medical school with: Alison Brie. Some dialogue: 'statistically, feminists are more likely to do anal'
This plot point probably seems the most politically objectionable so far but it's exactly this plot point - if it had been better written and more committed - which could've led to something interesting and given us a real twisted anti-heroine. It's the only part of the film where I actually felt engaged. More on this later.
Cassie leaves Alison Brie inebriated and goes on another scheme, which is kidnapping a teenage girl by pretending to work for a boyband. The boy band is called 'Wet Dreams'. Rolling her eyes at a teenage girl for liking pop music? Feminism.
Interestingly, Cassie uses the phrase 'had sex with' when describing her friend's rape. Hm.
She pretends to 'endanger' the teenager (leave her drunk with a group of college boys) because she’s the daughter of college high up Connie Britton, who failed to support Nina after her rape, in order to...what, exactly? She does it to be told ‘You’re right’. Again, if there was more pay off, and the film could admit that Cassie is really quite an awful person, this could've worked. If this was the plot of the film - women enacting violence on other women as displaced revenge for men they cannot reach - that'd be pretty interesting.
But it isn't - it's just another anticlimax, and a weirdly paced one too. Nina’s rape and suicide happened a long time ago. Allegedly Cassie is doing this now because the rapist is back in town, which feels like an overly convenient plot choice. The two concepts: the entrapment scheme and the revenge for Nina scheme, do not hang together and seem like they’ve been combined solely because neither story was compelling enough on its own.
But noone has time for that many hobbies!
Cassie is then very mean about the teenage girl for no apparent reason and says of her: 'who needs brains, they never did a girl any good'. Indeed.
Cassie is out trying to entrap Sam Richardson and bumps in to her nice boyfriend, #awkward! Of the 3 men Cassie pulls her rape prank on, 1 is Black and 2 are white Jews. The two Jewish men are nerdy entitled 'nice guys' and the Black man is portrayed as a generic sleazebag turned aggressor. Not great, Fennell. He realises she’s sober (‘Are you sober?!’) and is instantly horrified, which I just don’t buy! It’s quite embarrassing that the ‘hook’ of this film is a concept that was picked up and dropped in a matter of minutes by Micheala Cole in the last episode of I May Destroy You. The man recognises her prank from the experience of a friend, which is an interesting addition because it basically admits that Cassie’s sober scolding isn’t enough of a cautionary tale to stop men predating on drunk women. Then, Cassie retorts: 'I'm not the only one who does this'.
So where is the movie with the girl gang who work together entrapping rapists? That would be better! This is never touched on again. Cassie’s mission remains a singular, nihilistic martyrdom. Sure, maybe it's a critique of revenge, but it's one we've seen before in, idk nearly every revenge film ever made. To me it shows a lack of interest in what we are actually to do about the problem of sexual violence, which is necessarily a collective struggle. I would never hold 'not offering a politically viable solution to endemic sexual violence' against a movie, but this is less a movie and more a string of half-thought polemics. This being the case, it seems particularly off that the universe of this film is free from any of the political actions which came out of the ‘me too’ movement it was inspired by, let alone anything more radical.
Cassie tells the guy she was entrapping that he's no looker and he runs off crying! Men crying = silly
Alfred Molina is here now, playing the lawyer that defended Cassie’s pal’s rapist. If nothing else this film is a great showcase for male acting talent :)
Bo appears again and it’s all V tragic that she can't date this nice guy because she's too busy doing inefficient revenge. They joke about how fedoras are not good, which is very current. It’s the halfway point (is that all?) and the fake-drunk-rape plotline is dropped like a sack of potatoes. We pivot momentarily to kooky indie rom com. Stars are Blind plays and it’s meant to be funny/endearing that her boyfriend likes the song, when like DUH p sure it was well appreciated at the time and reappraised by pitchfork types a while ago? It’s all getting a little 'EAT, RAPE, LOVE'
Bo comes round for a meet-the-parents dinner and now it’s The Sopranos. Dying at the notion of Emerald Fennell, a very posh English woman, trying to write a salt of the earth generic ethnic white American woman, who is in turn played by Carey Mulligan, another very posh English woman. It's v 3 Billboards, in that it’s a muddled vision of America by a non-American. This seems to be a tactic related to funding, from what I’ve read about the film’s production. Still, why not tell a story about exploitation in the film industry? Why not a story about assault at boarding school? Discourse around the film has finally landed on Fennell’s extremely privileged upbringing, but this doesn’t mean that she would have nothing to say about sexual violence. Such violence is, as we know from some of the most high profile scandals of metoo, rife amongst the upper class. While it’s often a case of powerful men exploiting women outside their direct class and social circles, women of their class are not exempt from this violence. I would be interested in watching something which unpacks that. Instead, Fennell takes the fact that women across social strata experience sexual violence to mean that sexual violence is a universal female experience that transcends context. This pretence was one of the big failings of the ‘metoo movement’. I think that people can and do make good art outside of their direct lived experience all the time (a few of my favourite films about gender are by cis het men - shh!) but this film makes claims on which it can’t deliver.
Also feels p misogynist to underuse Jennifer Coolidge like this!!!!
It’s revealed that Cassie not only got Alison Brie drunk but hired a man to take her to a hotel room, then aired all of her calls to make her think she’d been raped. In exchange for, um, not raping her (?) Alison Brie gives Cassie a video recording of her friend’s rape, and it turns out nice boyfriend was there watching. What a surprise 😏 Did everyone in this universe go to med school together? Cassie goes to meet her boyfriend and shows him the video as yet another gotcha.
With the video, which we only see reactions to, Fennell is referencing the real experiences of women who've had their assaults filmed, streamed, distributed. But in that case she should know that having video evidence didn’t do fuck all to help them. Women have had to fight merely to get such videos taken down from porn sites.
Cassie blackmails Bo into giving her the address of the rapist’s stag party, and then does a villain monologue where she explains her plan. She’s going to ambush the rapist, which allows her to dress up as a stripper/Darryl Hannah in Kill Bill 🙄and go to a remote cabin in the woods a la 1978 I Spit On Your Grave (a more feminist film tbh!)
This movie does NOT deserve to feature Britney's Toxic!!!!!!!
Hey it's the guy from New Girl (another jewish man err I mean, fake Nice Guy)
The men get 'debased' by Cassie pouring drinks in their mouth so it looks like they're swallowing cum. As we all know, swallowing cum is degrading.
Cassie takes the rapist upstairs for a private dance and chains him to the bed. So far, so predictable, which would be fine if it actually committed to the erotic thriller trope. She reveals her relation to the rapist by joking that he never noticed her at med school because she wasn't 'fuckable' then, basically reinforcing the idea that rape is about 'fuckability' for a throwaway line.
Cassie starts trying to carve Nina’s name on her rapist, which - can’t think of anything I’d want less! This is a riff on (or rip off) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but without anything that made that scene compelling. It also feels like an odd choice to reference such a recent cultural artefact, or maybe I'm just not prepared for the 2010s revival :( This adds to one of PYW's most infuriating failings: it is unstylish. It can't commit to an aesthetic and just throws everything it heard was cool (but is really rather middlebrow) at the wall - much like the proverbial bedroom wall of the DFW reading 'Nice Guys' she pilloried earlier. I have to say, the aristocratic aesthetes aren't what they used to be.
Now we get that anticipated subversion of genre conventions by, um, brutally murdering the lead female character. Which means we also get the imagery of a dead sex worker - slapped on this 'Promising Young Woman', which is pretty grim given sex workers have a higher risk of being murdered than civilian women. At this point you've probably tricked a bunch of sexual assault survivors in to watching a film where instead of getting a feminist take on rape-revenge, you have to watch a man murder a woman in real time.
The most emotional moment we get is between two men, deciding how to support eachother through the murder. (wait, does this movie pass the bechdel test? LOL)
Woman's burning corpse, great.
Jarring jump to mocking white hippy weddings, which is probably supposed to be a juxtaposition of the fantasy and reality of heterosexual romance. But all we get are some bad bongo players - what low hanging fruit!
If it ended here, I’d say this movie was bad, forgettable and a wasted opportunity (i.e. standard Best Picture nom. material). But it would've at least lived up to its Promise of debunking the revenge narrative, even in such a morbid and dissatisfying way. It’s not inaccurate to show that acts of retribution often backfire to the detriment of the person with less power. The fantasy of rape-revenge is usually about being able to get away with murdering your rapist. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t end here.
The alleged payoff: she planned her own murder to get potential revenge for her platonic 'gal pal' which depends on COPS arriving and arresting the wedding party.
Now I wouldn't expect someone like Emerald Fennell to say ACAB, but if you’re advertising your movie as a more ‘realistic’ take on a genre which has a critique of the police state embedded in its plot convention (violent interactions with the police/courts is often the instigator for the vigilante justice of these films) and your realism relies on removing that embedded critique then I’m going to judge you if that realism isn’t, well, realistic! So is it?
I'm going to start with the minor complaints first: brutal self sacrifice is just too much to expect from a former college roommate. It's a very high bar for allyship! Maybe if her 'friend' was actually her girlfriend and she was a very melodramatic and pro-cop lesbian (unfortunately they exist). It would still be groan-worthy, but it would explain why she might be so ready to die as part of this tepid revenge plot (tfw no girlfriend). I would say that the director has never considered the existence of lesbianism but allegedly she was in charge of Killing Eve S2, so that’s...something.
Next - if you are planning to die anyway, what's wrong with a good old fashioned murder suicide? Why rely on the very criminal justice system which previously failed you? On the same lawyer who fucked over your friend, thereby granting him more redemption than yourself? It's a bit late to take an anti-violence stance, once you've already gaslit someone into thinking she was raped. It imagine it's trying to say something about 'women'. That 'women' use passive and tricksy skills - perhaps involving Google docs, a little journal and some scheduled pink-hued messages - rather than physical violence. I don't think I need to tell you why this is wrong when there are women in prison today for defending themselves against their abusers. I also don't think I need to tell you who Fennell really means by 'women', Laverne Cox bit part notwithstanding.
So let's think about what might have actually happened: the man kills our girl in self defence. Do we think a bunch of majority white upper middle class professionals would jump straight to burning the body and hiding all evidence before they would call the cops, cops who exist to serve and protect people like them? Cassie is basically trying to use 'missing white woman syndrome' to her advantage here (it's like Gone Girl never happened...) but I don't know if that really works so well if you pull a knife on an equally white and (more) respectable man in a clearly premeditated attack - so I can't imagine him getting more than a few years. Plus the obvious question: what’s the point when you’re dead?
Fennell didn’t want to give us a Hollywood ending, but what’s more Hollywood than cops solving everything, after 10 years of Marvel and Disney dominating the film industry? Of the Hollywood films made outside of this framework, many do not have Happy Endings. Thinking it’s clever and original to make a ‘realistic’ rape-revenge is like thinking it’s clever and original to make a new, dark, neocon Batman. A sad ending can be more of a Cop out than a happy one, a shortcut to an emotional impact you didn't earn.
The rape-revenge isn’t Hollywood, it’s a subgenre of exploitation film. PYW is attempting to capitalise on a rape-revenge resurgence: the enduring popularity of cult movies like I Spit On Your Grave and Ms. 45, the recent rash of works directed by women (e.g. 2017's Revenge and M.F.A, 2018's Holiday, that actual deconstruction of rape revenge: 2020's I May Destroy You). Yet it really doesn’t seem to actually draw much from the genre, and the alleged 'subversion' only removes the violence against rapists. We still get a rape scene by proxy when we hear parts of Nina's recorded rape, as well as an extended suffocation scene - a trope of eroticised gendered violence. Perhaps Fennell thinks she’s made a film for boys to feel bad about, but she gives them both too much and not enough credit. She paints all men as rapists (and most women as complicit with rape) and then offers up a steaming slice of femicide for them to watch. There's seemingly no interest in why rape-revenge was a popular subgenre, why there was a fascination around metoo allegations which bordered on prurient, why she herself wants to make a film about rape - beyond that old, tired maxim of 'raising awareness'. But no one is going to stop raping because they watched a film (and definitely not this film).
Rather than a fresh take on an old exploitation genre, PYW plays out like a flat, indie drama with a Tarantino media studies project tacked on at the end (do they do media studies at boarding school? probs not) The key difference is one of labour, because we know that Uma Thurman was abused by Tarantino during the making of Kill Bill. PYW was directed by a woman, produced by a woman, and had involvement from its female lead. So hopefully, some (very rich, white etc.) women had a nice time making it and no one was sexually assaulted. But this isn’t guaranteed - what about the rest of the crew, PAs, extras? And as the film rightly argues, women can be complicit in rape too (they can even be rapists!). So by PYW's own logic, women on top isn't enough. As stated in this podcast on ‘feminist porn’ from decriminalised futures: we need more than just aesthetics, we need ethics.
It's easy to imagine a sad ending. But those of us who are concerned with survival rather than martyrdom look around the fucked up world and try to imagine happy endings every day.