The first line of dialogue in Promising Young Woman is “Fuck her.” It’s spoken by a toxic man, to a group of toxic men, about a woman they are “inadvertently” icing out of a professional opportunity. Soon after, we watch the performatively nicest man of the group, Adam Brody, attempt to sexually assault our protagonist, the Oscar-nominated Carey Mulligan. But in truth, she is in control, and as this interaction ends, the Oscar-nominated writer/director Emerald Fennell cuts to an opening credits sequence where a handy red stain on a shirt implies Mulligan has murdered him.
These are hard, brutal, gut-stabbing lines, actions, philosophies, and straight up crimes to fling into out of the gate. And the film is just getting started. Promising Young Woman, despite and because of its idiosyncratic cinematic construction of candy-coated colors, askew camera angles, and banging pop tunes, possesses a unique power to discomfort — not just in its examination of a casually violent patriarchy, but in the choices, or implications of choices, its main character and screenplay take in reaction. There were times I wasn’t sure I could keep stomaching Promising Young Woman. I’m so happy I did.
Why do we watch revenge thrillers? There’s something uniquely cathartic about watching someone inflict the same kind of damage on people who inflict damage. In our contemporary resurgence and most ubiquitous version of this genre, we’re usually watching an older man inflict physical violence on a crew of baddies that have inflicted physical violence upon his loved ones. Liam Neeson in Taken, Keanu Reeves in John Wick, Bob Odenkirk in Nobody; the ostensibly relatable joys of these films come from an audience-engaging “what would you do?” question. And when you watch Odenkirk pummel the shit out of a busful of bastards, you get to answer the most perverse version of that question morally scot-free. The genre works, I cannot lie!
But the genre, or at least how it’s been done lately, often asks you to align with an inherently male point of view. “They killed my women, so I will kill them” is the broad formula of this type of film, turning female characters into male motivation, a violent catalyst to a violent end. Promising Young Woman takes elements of this broad formula and explosively synthesizes it with the broad formula we see in equivalent female-driven revenge films — a formula that nearly always includes revenge for violence, usually sexual violence, inflicted against the main character, rather than against the main character’s loved ones. Ms. 45, I Spit on Your Grave, Thriller — A Cruel Picture; the foundational texts of this subgenre show, graphically, the degradation of the female body, casting a bitter pallor over their eventual turn to revenge we don’t get as severely in the male-dominated versions. Many modern films tackle this genre with a more critical, purposefully muckraking eye — the great Revenge comes to mind — but even the contemporary classics like Kill Bill or The Invisible Man make it very clear that their main character has suffered vicious sexual violence.
Promising Young Woman, more than any other recent film of this genre, applies the male version of this formula — the violence happened to someone else, and I am going to inflict this same violence on them as a mode of protection and revenge — to its female protagonist and her concerns with violence inflicted against the female body by the male body (Peppermint might be the closest modern analog I can think of, which sets Jennifer Garner on a Nobody-esque spree of violence without any of the necessarily prickly follow-up questions Fennell is interested in; in fact, it replaces them with some pretty questionable racial politics).
I want to talk about identity for a moment, not just because no piece of writing exists in a vacuum, but also because so much of Promising Young Woman is an interrogation of identity and an attack against the upsetting privileges that come with it. I’m a cis white guy. If you’re not interested in hearing what a cis white guy thinks about Promising Young Woman, I completely get that. My response is twofold. One, as PYW star Bo Burnham told our own Vinnie Mancuso, it is beyond important that cis white guys engage with the interrogations explored in this film, as we’re the ones who need to look at our own community to understand and dismantle the privileges that lead to such heinous actions against women.
And two, I am a victim and survivor of sexual violence. Watching depictions of sexual violence in media can often trigger me. I knew such depictions were part and parcel of the Promising Young Woman premise, complicated and intrigued by the fact that Mulligan would be secretly “in charge” during these depictions. These sequences are alternatingly gut-churning and entertaining. I laugh at Christopher Mintz-Plasse acting like such a douche, I cringe when he feels her up thinking she can’t give permission (thinking that’s a good thing), I feel a huge sense of cathartic rage when Mulligan shuts him down and verbally eviscerates him. While portions of the first half of the film feel like a revolving door of triggering situations, of watching men use tactics and manipulations I’ve experienced to force unwanted sexual contact, the ultimate reveal of Mulligan’s agency and act of vengeance, this expression of control over an uncontrollable situation, kept me locked in, kept me feeling “safe.”
The first time I thought about bailing was when the film wanted me to think Mulligan hired a man to rape Alison Brie. Brie is one of the many college classmates of Mulligan complicit in the rape of Mulligan’s best friend Nina, the action of which led to Nina committing suicide. Mulligan confronts Brie in a fancy restaurant, getting her excessively drunk before hiring a man to go to her hotel room alone. This transaction is filmed with brutal efficiency, the way you might see a shot of a male vigilante cocking a gun at the end of act one. The next day, we watch Mulligan receive a litany of panicked voicemails from Brie, who can barely remember a man and a hotel room and not much else. She pleads for clarity from Mulligan, for any facts on whether she was a victim of sexual violence. Mulligan does not respond.
It is revealed, eventually, that Mulligan staged this “attack” as an act of psychological warfare. The man simply put her to bed and left. But the film is more than comfortable leaving this revelation at the end of purposeful stillness. We watch our main character continue to meet-cute with Burnham, continue to scratch off names in her revenge book, as the “fact” that she has arranged for one of her enemies to be raped in retaliation itches and burns in the back of our head. I can only think of one other recent revenge thriller that uses “I may have raped someone” as a twistedly ambiguous character response, and that is Joel Edgerton’s The Gift. The moment that happened, I checked out. My gut-check reaction in PYW was to do the same. In all my years reckoning with my trauma, and all my years of happily consuming revenge thrillers, never once did I have a cathartic fantasy of “raping somebody back.” It feels catastrophically unhealthy to me, even in a genre usually full of murder. To have to align with a hero willing to cross that line nearly crossed the line to me.
Depiction does not equal endorsement, and protagonists in revenge thrillers do not act in ways we should. Maybe that’s an obvious fact, but when you’re in the heat of a subjectively-oriented film, it’s hard to separate from the primal emotions you can feel. Fennell, in her ingenious construction, is simply taking the revenge formula so easily consumed and justified in other films — violence against me, violence against you — and stretching it to its most bitterly painful conclusion. Then, Fennell lays the cards down by having her protagonist realize this. Nina’s mother, Molly Shannon, begs for Mulligan to move on, to not spend her life chasing this strand of revenge. Burnham represents a positive way forward, a genuine nice guy in a sea of “nice guys” (more on that in a moment). Mulligan even owns up to Brie about her vile gambit, expressing genuine contrition and a desire to move past such acts of revenge. From a craft perspective, it is a thrilling, risk-taking, yet ultimately inevitable roller coaster Fennell puts us on, one I’ve not experienced in a modern film in some time, one I’m absolutely glad I stuck through. And from an emotional perspective, it is such a transformative, difficult, rewarding arc to witness, one that plays with genre expectations of both the revenge thriller and the “healing from pain” drama to deliver something wholly unique and vital-feeling.
Then, the third act happens. Mulligan discovers, via horrifying video footage, that Burnham was there when Nina got raped, and did nothing to stop it. She confronts him, and he reverts into the same kind of self-pitying “don’t ruin my life with this” bullshit rhetoric we’ve seen every other man resort to. She blackmails him for the bachelor party location of the rapist, Chris Lowell, and heads to the secluded cabin for her final act of vengeance under the guise of their hired stripper for the evening. These domino fallings are surprising and heartbreaking, to be sure, but feel immediately understandable. And again, as Mulligan handcuffs Lowell to a bed, ready to mark his skin with a thousand knife-written Ninas, I can’t help but feel a little “pumped” in the way that other revenge movie third acts are designed to make me feel “pumped.”
But instead of giving us this glorious act of catharsis — instead of allowing Mulligan the kindness of destroying the man who destroyed her life — Fennell frames Lowell murdering Mulligan in a sickening oner. The camera slowly tracks in as Lowell smothers Mulligan under a pillow, her muffled screams jarring against Lowell’s pleading rage. It is a horrifying piece of filmmaking, one that immediately removes us from the “Toxic”-scored world of popcorn violence into the grimy facts that come from killing. The next moments involve Max Greenfield promising to take care of our blubbering murderer, to shield him from receiving any kind of consequence for his action. And the moments after that involve them burning her body to a crisp. There’s nothing ambiguous about any of this; the third act of Promising Young Woman is predicated on horrific rapist-murderers obliterating the one woman who’s been trying to stop them this entire time.
I was gobsmacked by this chain of events. Frozen by its unpredictability. But in my subconscious, an inner voice kept saying, “This feels cruel.” It felt cruel for a film to take me on such a provocative journey, one in which the arc of a character involved stomaching a certain level of implied cruelty from them, only to murder her for her troubles. To assign it back to my identity, I kept thinking, “Is this film trying to say survivors of sexual violence will never win?”
Ultimately, the truth has the last say. Mulligan went to that bachelor party knowing she wouldn’t come back alive, and she orchestrated a chain of events leading to tip off everyone she’s come into contact (including the beleaguered Burnham) that these men murdered her. She willingly sacrificed herself to get any sense of consequence, any drop of progress against the inherent sexual violence of the patriarchy. This burning of herself to affect change and closure does feel bizarrely adrenaline-inducing in the way a typical revenge thriller climax does; it’s an ending that clarifies and punches in Fennell’s usage of genre tropes to their most heightened conclusions. But if you take it literally — that more women, more victims must die for anyone to pay attention — it still remains bleak and moribund, even among its cathartic use of “Angel of the Morning.”
And yet, it empowered me, as a victim. I understand the need to burn away one’s past self to scream the truth and move forward; if anything, my self-work has been nothing but this process. It also made me retroactively rejudge how I viewed the film’s other knee-jerk unsavory elements. Now that the shock that comes with a literal interpretation has been absorbed, what does it all mean in a deeper sense? I’ve since rewatched the film — triggering moments, unconscionable protagonist behavior, undeserving punishments and all — and found great rewards, complicated ideas, and depth beyond the knee-jerk. For as fleet, fiery, and accessibly made as the movie is, Promising Young Woman takes you to the edge, right before bringing you back to a center. I’m so glad I stuck with it, and I hope you do, too.
Promising Young Woman is now available on Digital and Blu-ray.
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