‘Promising Young Woman’ is not the revenge story you’re looking for

Images courtesy Focus Features.

3/10 I think we all really needed this. Three years after the Harvey Weinstein saga kicked into gear in October 2017, horrifically realizing the old casting couch, “who’d she blow for that role” stereotypes in a way that reveals what poor taste those jokes were always in, after four years of “grab her by the pussy,” it’s so wonderful to finally get some cinematic catharsis, an extravagant, brutal rape-revenge story in Promising Young Woman.

In the film, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a formerly promising young woman who dropped out of med school to take care of her friend Nina, who was gang-raped while blackout drunk and harassed off campus by her main assailant’s lawyer when she sought justice. Nina is referred to in the past tense throughout the film, and we’re meant to assume the worst. Thomas spends her weekends going to clubs and pretending to be extremely drunk, intending to lure in an opportunistic man to take her home and try to rape her. She then snaps out of it and…

…gives them a mild talking to. There’s no murdering, no dismemberment, none of that sort of graphic catharsis, she just sort of tells them off and enjoys the reversed power dynamic without actually employing it to any advantage.

When an old friend from med school, Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) starts pursuing Thomas romantically and she begins to experience human emotions again, she finally takes a break from preying on random scumbags and starts going after the people directly responsible for Nina’s assault, a process that entails…

…threatening to have women who didn’t believe Nina raped themselves so they’ll know how it feels and still being largely reluctant to go after Nina’s actual attackers.

OK.

Morality wouldn’t be an issue in the graphic grindhouse movie Promising Young Woman promised to be, but it isn’t that film. Rape-revenge stories will typically begin with a sexual assault scene proportionally graphic to the violence that will follow, creating a platonically perfect fantasy where everything the main character does is inherently justified, and you just get to enjoy watching rapists get chopped into dogmeat. Promising Young Woman instead withholds Thomas’ justification, revealing Nina’s ordeal progressively through dialogue and even saving the clear-cut proof of what happened for a big reveal like a cheap true crime show.

The weird Christ imagery around Thomas is Promising Young Woman in a nutshell – the metaphors don’t work, and it was made for and sold to two completely different audiences.

It maps much more closely to a redemption story, in which Thomas’ character arc is to get out of the revenge business and materially recover from Nina’s death so she can return to a traditional nuclear family alignment with Cooper. There’s also a lot of imagery propping up Thomas as a Christ figure, a metaphor that makes no sense at all, but furthers the overarching appeal to traditionalism and middle America.

But then there’s a left turn at the act 2 crisis point, and Thomas gets back into the revenge business for good, and the Christ imagery intensifies.

What are we meant to think here? The narrative structure again makes us question Thomas’ morality in an entirely separate way from the content – is the film presenting her as good or bad? And what would either of those answers mean, exactly? She goes from focusing on revenge to focusing on her man, and then back to focusing on revenge after being reminded of things she mostly already knew. Circular character arcs are things, but Thomas is so passive she seems less like a scripted fictional character and more of a friend in their late ‘20s who still can’t stick with one degree path for more than a semester. Perhaps it’s meant to be read as a linear path from general to specific revenge, and her relationship phase is a distraction?

Promising Young Woman was certainly meant to challenge viewers, but not in this way. There’s a strong argument to be made that this moral ambiguity was writer/director/producer Emerald Fennell’s intent, but that’s if you only examine the text and not context. Making a movie on this subject matter at this point in history and then defending it as having no clear thesis by design would be disingenuous and irresponsible. The confused narrative is just a confused narrative here, and if it were confusing by design, that’d only be worse.

The film’s real challenge to viewers is to believe all women by despairing in Thomas’ grief just as we would if we were made to sit through Nina’s assault as in a traditional version of this story and joining unreservedly in her mischief, but the “believe all women” mantra was written for real-world allegations. Film is not newsprint, where claims of sexual misconduct are vetted by professional reporters and their lawyers and almost always accompanied by documentation, witnesses and the corroboration of similar accusations, nor is it social media, where public allegations tend to flame out if they don’t hold up to a wilder but similar standard of scrutiny. Film is a visual medium in which seeing is believing, and Thomas is the only bad actor we see in Promising Young Woman.

The only real way Promising Young Woman seems to reject the historic male dominance of Hollywood is its aesthetic, which is “bubblegum” in every sense. It’s clearly a deliberately shot film, filled with bright close-ups of Thomas’ nails, shoes, actual bubblegum and other girly things. The most iconic music is a derivation of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” and there’s a full dance sequence to a Paris Hilton song. Fennell is clearly a talented technical filmmaker, and it’ll be exciting to watch her career moving forward.

The problem really isn’t that this film doesn’t contain the graphic rape scene it might have – that’s wonderful and completely appropriate. These scenes are the byproduct of the same boys-club Hollywood and its lurid obsession with women as objects that created the anger this film was made to rail against. The problem is that Thomas’ revenge is much stranger than just chopping rapists up into dogmeat. Thomas uses herself as bait and is constantly lying in general, drugs several people, hires goons to assault people physically and sexually, appears to prepare to brand someone with a tattoo and at one point she kidnaps Dean Elizabeth Walker’s (Connie Britton) daughter and threatens to have her gang-raped. It’s generally wrong to do these things, and they’re not nearly as satisfying to watch as simple violence would be.

Then again, the perceived universality of the nuclear family framework that Thomas gravitates toward is also the byproduct of that boys-club Hollywood, a slightly more grown-up version of that same obsession with gender norms. Just as Promising Young Woman seems uncurious about the reasons American rapists are so free of accountability, it seems uncurious about how those reasons connect to other aspects of our society.

That lack of curiosity is the fundamental disconnect. This is a movie about believing women unconditionally, challenging viewers with Thomas’ morally bankrupt actions and backfilling the justification for them with the confirmation of trauma that we don’t get to see, released into a world that doesn’t believe women when they have documentation and corroborating witnesses and refuses to punish rapists even when they’re convicted. It presents sexual predation as systemic in scope but isolated in its nature, the product of a character defect that is individualized but somehow present in every single man Thomas encounters. This flies in the face of what we’ve known for years and are acutely aware in the moment this film was born out of, that large-scale sexual predation is mostly the work of repeat offenders who don’t commit other crimes, partially because any rapist is staggeringly likely to escape accountability.

Promising Young Woman doesn’t scratch the itch that it was advertised to scratch. Again, you could make a strong argument that this is an intentional denial of catharsis, but that would also be a strong argument against going to see Promising Young Woman.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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