Content warning: Rape, Sexual Assault
I went into this showing without knowing much about the movie I was seeing. I remembered watching the original trailer in early January of 2020. The creepily high-pitched violin rendition of Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ and a cast filled with actors known for their dry humour had me excited to see what it was all about. And then it’s release was postponed indefinitely. For obvious reasons. And so the months went by, cinemas started to reopen, and soon enough they were finally screening new films again. By the time the teaser trailer was rereleased and I heard the familiar piercing violin strings once again, I had forgotten what I was getting myself into.
Carey Mulligan is Cassie, a thirty-year-old med school dropout who spends her days working at her friend’s coffee shop, and her nights pretending to be blackout drunk to see which ‘nice guy’ will end up trying to assault her. We see this in the first scene of the film, in which Jerry, a random guy at a random bar, ends up taking the too-drunk-to-walk Cassie to his place. This scene is where the idea of Promising Young Woman began, said first-time feature writer and director Emerald Fennell. This is Cassie’s usual schedule, until she starts to fall for an old classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham). With Ryan’s return into her life, Cassie is reminded of all the people from her days at college who were apart of, or covered up, the sexual assault of her best friend, Nina. And it’s then that Cassie decides she wants retribution.
Despite Fennell’s experience as the show-runner for season two of the thriller series, Killing Eve, this film is not your cookie cutter revenge flick. In fact, most of the movie feels like a misplaced romcom, about a girl learning to let go and move on from the terrible event that changed her whole life, and forgive herself for not being there for Nina when it happened. Your heart almost swells when Cassie and Ryan dance to Paris Hilton in a pharmacy (this is when the obligatory montage happens) and you even feel hopeful when Cassie finally throws away her little book that counts the names of her previously caught ‘nice guys’. But Fennell seems to know how to keep the audience just slightly on edge.
The music has to be mentioned, as I briefly have above. Curated with an eclectic mix of songs, from Paris Hilton’s ‘Stars Are Blind’ to a bass-heavy and dark rendition of ‘It’s Raining Men’, the music is perfectly aligned with the film to slowly build up your indignation to blood lust, while hinting at the possibly unhinged nature of our protagonist. Fennell pairs these songs with a perfect selection, starting the film with a remix of Charli XCX’s ‘Boys’, and (without spoiling the ending) concluding the film with FLETCHER’s ‘Last Laugh’. There are many moments in the movie when you can’t help but let out a laugh when you realise what song is being played. Pair this with the sheer amount of comedically-trained actors (comedian Bo Burnham, Community’s Alison Brie, New Girl’s Max Greenfield, comedy film regular Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and the iconic Jennifer Coolidge to name a few), the audience is primed to go from tension-relieving laughter as Cassie and Ryan flirt with each other, to pale-faced and tight-breathed as she slowly enacts her plans on all those who’ve wronged her and her best friend.
Though there is never any on-screen sexual assault taking place, Fennell uses the ‘hush-hush’ nature that follows rape victims and how people deal with it. Not one of Cassie’s targets can even seem to use the word rape, unwilling to admit the severity of what happened. Despite there being no visuals of the act ever displayed in the film, the impact of the assault is directly seen to be effecting Cassie. It is through her that we experience this gut-retching reality of what happened and how it was buried in order to protect the careers and lives of the promising young men. Mulligan has proven herself time and time again to be an actor who can handle any script, and she does it again here. You feel her hollow rage, you wince at her pain, you cry at the injustice she is constantly dealt. And as the film goes on and Cassie ups the stakes, you are ready for the blood to start flowing.
However, I don’t want to spoil the ending, as I think it’s a movie that needs to be experienced; a journey that you need to go on yourself. For sexual assault survivors, many things in this film will hit close to home and may be hard to experience, but this call to action is for those who don’t know how common a story like this can be. For those who say ‘she should’ve watched what she was drinking’ or ‘those clothes are just asking for it’. For those who expect a happy ending. Because with stories like these, there aren’t really any happy endings.
Overall, Promising Young Woman is a fun romcom with dark twists and corners ripe for exploring.