E.L. King says Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman is unexpected, but ultimately doesn't deliver any hope for sexual assault survivors.
[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS]
The thriller Promising Young Woman is the feature debut from writer and director Emerald Fennell. It follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a woman seeking to avenge the death of her best friend Nina, a victim of sexual assault in college who didn't survive the aftermath and trauma of the experience. Cassie is a 30-year-old medical school drop-out who’s smart, cunning, and living a secret double life. An unexpected encounter with a former classmate ignites an opportunity for her to fill the shattered void where Nina used to be and right the wrongs of the past. Much of the film’s backstory feels pulled from the headlines, further highlighting the double standards applied to sexual assault victims and their assailants.
The revenge thriller delivered well above and beyond expectations and blew away preconceived notions pretty quickly about what it was going to be for better and for worse. The ability to indulge in a revenge thriller without having to rehash one's own sexual assault trauma was a pleasant and refreshing surprise. Some have commented that the lack of physical violence is a twist on a tale of revenge that lets the antagonists get away with too much, but audiences may find it to be somewhat refreshing. We shouldn't be required to view gratuitous sexual violence to understand that rape has occurred.
Fennell opts for the only physical violence depicted in the film to be against women versus giving audiences a satisfying explosion of the same rage on the abusers or enablers in the film. Violence doesn’t have to be physical and its psychological horror is part of what makes the narrative intriguing. Cassie dishes out plenty of shaming and emotional abuse through manipulation, “mind-fucking” her way to revenge, but it’s never enough and ultimately is her undoing. Fennel gives us a cautionary tale about women and the choices we make which is reinforced throughout the film. While this may not ring true for everyone, being scolded or told that women putting themselves into dangerous situations is a root cause of our trauma is invalidating — as if our mere existence in any circumstance is an invitation to sexually assault, harm, or kill us.
The film's biggest overarching issue beyond the seemingly convoluted messaging is the point that it took a hard left turn from revenge thriller to romantic comedy set to the vocal stylings of Paris Hilton in a Pharmacy. We could have all done without the cute montage breaking from the film's more serious themes. While the relationship between Cassie and Ryan (Bo Burnham) is important to a key revelation to set up the film's final act, it seems to confuse everything, including Cassie's revenge plot. Perhaps she’s trying to move on and give up this revenge gambit by diving head-first into her relationship, but it’s an unwelcome distraction.
It's bothersome that despite being set up to feel that we the audience, cheering Cassie on have won at the end of the film, in reality, we haven’t. Due to the inherent privilege of the abusers in the film that got them out of trouble before, what we really get is a big "fuck you" and "better luck next time" scenario. The cycle of abuse will rinse and repeat despite how insightful the film is about the existence of that privilege.
The audience experiences almost everything from Cassie’s perspective and the story is full of mystery, intrigue, chaotic behavior, and the inability to cope with tragedy. Promising Young Woman culminates in a truly remarkable and unfortunate way. At the end of it all, we're left saying, “Holy fuck!” while reading that text message along with Ryan. While Fennell succeeds in surprising audiences with her ode to #MeToo, and Mulligan gives an incredibly layered and entertaining performance, the film offers no messages of hope to those who have been through sexual assault. Unfortunately, it's all rather disappointing.
Promising Young Woman is now streaming on Amazon.