Promising Young Woman
A Celebration of Female Rage
The constant continuation of rape culture comes to a steaming boil like a covered stove pot spilling over in Emerald Fennell’s directional debut Promising Young Woman, a film that's as empowering and unstoppable as it is culturally significant.
Promising Young Woman follows Cassie, (Carey Mulligan in one of many roles she was born to play) a former med school student who dropped out after the rape and suicide of her best friend Nina. Nobody but Cassie believed her and no one was ever held responsible. Nina’s sexual reputation with men was predictably used against her before her death and the trauma and fury towards the people who wronged Nina left Cassie unable to continue her studies.
Cassie has since moved back in with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and works at a coffee house run by her only friend Gail (Laverne Cox) who's on the verge of firing her just so she'll find something more meaningful to do with her life.
Cassie ignores the warnings and stays focused on her weekly pattern: Every weekend, she goes to a bar and pretends to be intoxicated, often on the verge of a blackout. Men always get her to go home with them with the intention of sexually taking advantage of her once she fully passes out. Once these pigs think they have her, she drops the drunk act which always catches them off guard. Cassie then confronts each startled pig (who always thinks the sloppy drunk is lucky to be with him) about his behavior and keeps track of how many men she confronts in a notebook. The first time she opens it, you see that she's done this several times. She's an absolute pro at this point.
It's more than likely that a woman who would do this in real life would end up getting assaulted upon confronting these predators but in Cassie's experience, she always freaks them out in the end because she's so believable as a sloppy drunk. She's also very blunt in her deliveries leaving her prey to just staring at her in shock and fear.
I'm usually very insistent that a film’s advertising be no different than the film itself so that audiences know what they're getting into but for Promising Young Woman, I understand why distribution took a different approach. The trailer made it seem like Cassie was the one who was raped and that she kills all these men. Rape and revenge thrillers usually don't face difficulty in securing large audiences but the films themselves are always ingenuine. They use a woman's trauma for entertainment. Isabelle Huppert’s Elle is the first film of the rape and revenge genre that did something different. Promising Young Woman is the second and both films are masterpieces.
If you’re going to make a film about sexual abuse told through a women's lens, then she has to be a real character. She can't be defined by it or used as a tool to move the story along. She has to be bigger than the story, she has to BE the story. She has to come out just as memorable as the film, if not more. Elle gave me hope that a film like Promising Young Woman could be made and Promising Young Woman leaves me hoping for a new trail of films that value unapologetic authenticity.
A former classmate of Cassie’s, Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) soon sees her at the coffee house and the two begin a friendship. He soon brings to Cassie's attention that Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), the man who raped Nina is getting married. Cassie plans to confront Al herself but first, she confronts individuals who were complacent in Nina’s downfall.
There's Madison (Happiest Season’s Allison Brie), one of the many girls who didn't believe Nina. She comes off so clearly as the peppy, giggly, and entitled sorority girl who's thrilled to see Cassie again as it's been far too long (Just think of Winona Ryder shrieking at seeing Jennifer Aniston in the hit series Friends in the episode The One With Rachel’s Big Kiss). There's also Elizabeth Walker (Dirty John’s & Bombshell’s Connie Britton), the College Dean who did not believe Nina and rejected her when she came to her for help.
One of the endless strengths of Promising Young Woman is that it shows the systemic complicity of women and that being a woman shouldn't let you off the hook for any role in securing the continuation of abusive conduct.
Madison and Elizabeth aren't individuals who quietly turned a blind eye and ignored what was going on. They're individuals who flat out verbally rejected any possibility of it being true. To them, whatever happened they want no part of it. If it's not true, they don't have to deal with it so they deny the facts to make their own lives easier.
Each scene of confrontation with them is just like the confrontation scene with the male predators. Your blood will boil at the things they say but your nerves will calm when you see that Cassie doesn't back down and turns the table on both of them. Cassie's now in control and it's incredibly satisfying to watch.
It's no secret that Carey Mulligan is one of the best actors out there. She's been a top favorite of mine for years now and she's blown me away every single time. To really look at someone with your eyes onscreen is to watch and analyze their performance and as someone who loves doing that, I can say that I've never been able to take my eyes off of Carey Mulligan. She has a history of playing complex and unapologetic women, characters that she often had to fight to create, no doubt.
I'd say she portrays Cassie as a shark smelling blood in the water but she doesn't have to smell it. She sees the blood that everyone else ignores. She's a shark because she doesn't need to slaughter her prey. She just needs to circle around them calmly as though she's going to devour them. That alone will completely freak them out.
Cassie's not doing what she's doing for political reasons or even out of protest. She's doing what she does because she fell in love with the idea of a world that does its very best to keep people safe and punish people who hurt others for their own needs. I've always said it's devastating and brutal to find out people aren't who you thought they were but to learn that about a whole system, a whole culture that's supposed to be there for you, there just are no words for that.
Cassie's no victimized Cinderella waiting for her fairy godmother to wave her magic wand and make everything ok. Nobody's getting things done so she goes out and gets it done herself. Cassie's only job was to support her friend and be there for her which she did. It was the job of those with a higher power to even begin an investigation and punish Al and all the other pigs. Cassie is an original character but like female characters before her, she's doing everyone else's job for them.
On another note, I'd say you don't need to scream and yell to portray rage. That's how men often portray rage. Women are much more intelligent in regards to rage. Carey Mulligan just closes her eyes and smiles in frustration upon hearing Al try to justify his actions: “We were kids”. Cassie's response: “If I hear that one more time...”
She laughs a little in her delivery because that's what happens when you're filled with pure rage which brings me to my favorite thing about Promising Young Woman: Rage is something that is celebrated because audiences love to see it. So do I. It's just human nature to enjoy seeing that on-screen and there's nothing wrong with it. Rage is rewarded in cinema and often seen as exciting and sexy… for men. From Robert De Niro to Al Pacino in any Scorsese film to any movie about Wall Street and business to Michael Shannon’s glaring eyes in Nocturnal Animals/The Shape Of Water and of course, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker.
It's not often women get characters like that because rage just isn't something society values in women. A woman portraying rage is seen as an unlikeable bitch that you needn't take seriously. Carey Mulligan herself has said that audiences just aren't used to seeing women onscreen like that because it's not what's been modeled for audiences.
As a cinephile, I am telling all of you that it's ok to enjoy and be fascinated by rage on screen. In fact, don't just enjoy it - Celebrate it! Celebrate the rage that we can't express in our real lives but all feel. Again, that's human nature and it's completely healthy but cinema and society have to start letting women into that circle and not coin it as hysteria.
I hope you will reflect on my point of view and think about it when you see Promising Young Woman, which I hail as one of the year's best films. Promising Young Woman is about so much more than rape culture though that is a massive part of it at its core, it's a film that celebrates female rage and ALL of the other internal complexities in women, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Photo credit: https://bit.ly/2KrlQ0I