If you watched the trailer above, which I hoped you did, let’s have a moment for that instrumental take of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” by Anthony Willis. SO GUD.
Now on to the review.
Back in late fall 2020, I heard considerable buzz about the film Promising Young Woman, and I kind of wanted to see it. But I wasn’t super eager at the same time because I couldn’t really gather what the movie was about. I also might’ve been more willing to just go and see it if movie theatre openings weren’t so off and on as far as openings went during the holiday season. After a friend and I had gone to see Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in theaters early December, most cinemas again closed nationwide due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases. And Promising Young Woman was released on Christmas Day, via video on demand and whatever theater was open, as it was originally meant for a spring 2020 release.
It was recently that I decided to give the film a watch, after seeing it trend on Twitter once again! Being that it is still award show season, Carey Mulligan, who plays the lead Cassandra, aka Cassie, Thomas in the film, has been praised for her performance.* And on Twitter, there was also a lot of chatter about the ending. Even more so on YouTube.
So I gleaned the tweets and then left because spoilers are amuck online. It was time to go watch Promising Young Woman, which I did, at home. (Though I wished I had gone to the theater instead).
*The film has been racking up awards, and this past Monday received a handful of Oscar nominations. Mulligan is up for Best Actress in a Leading Role, the film for best Picture, and Emerald Fennell for Best Original Screenplay.
Without ruining it for you, Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell (who was pregnant during production!) follows med school-dropout Cassie, who is hellbent on avenging for the rape of her late friend Nina, who was in med school with her. It’s an absolute case study of living in a world in which rape culture has been both normalized and in recent times, more and more combated against. The film take this reality further and imagines an instance in which, what if we were to unorthodoxly take matters into their own hands and attempt to seek justice for victims and survivors?
As Mulligan shared during her interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, though dissent from accepting boys will be boys has increased, we’ve been overly conditioned about this phenomenon and the dangers that have come with it for far too long.
“The conversation that I believe Emerald was hoping to create would be something that went further into the cultural conversation. And these situations that happen in our film have happened in so many comedies. Bro comedies. Films in which a guy tries to lose his virginity in a nightclub, at any expense, or try to identify the most drunk girl. These are things that we’ve watched and laughed at and have been so normalized in our culture for so long. Of course [the film], touches on that stuff, but it’s not so much pointing blame on or assigning people villainess roles. It’s more how have we all been complicit in this? It does give people an opportunity to experience this stuff through a different lens because we’re so used to seeing this kind of stuff from the perspective of the boy or the man, and not the perspective of the very drunk girl in the corner. Except in this situation, she’s stone cold sober.”
That’s right. In the film, Cassie pretends to be white girl wasted in bars and lounges, in order to lure her prey (men), and later, once these so-called nice guys have taken her back to their place (and you know why), shockingly reveals to them that she is not only sober, but that she may just physically harm them for trying to take advantage of her.
Actually, she mostly just wants to frighten them and her obsession in scaring these men straight is due to what happened to Nina. Since comeuppance was not served for the rapist and bystanders that witnessed inebriated Nina get assaulted at a party, any given man in Cassie’s path will pay for what happened. It’s her extracurricular activity after working during the day at a local coffee shop, run by a woman played by Laverne Cox. This is routine for Cassie until Promising Young Woman then goes on to show Cassie targeting her ultimate prey, Al Monroe, the man that raped Nina, and it all escalates from there, as even two women who were enablers of the crime, in some way, experience Cassie’s wrath.
I will share that once Cassie’s face-to-face with Al, she doesn’t once pretend to be drunk.
I know you may be thinking, “Girl, why are you telling me the movie?” Nope. Until you’ve seen it, you just have no idea how slick and calm Cassie is in following through on her plans every time. It’s kind of remarkable and a sick fantasy to watch as a woman, even if the film is fiction.
It harkens to when Lorena Bobbitt cut off her then-husband’s penis after alleged abuse and marital rape by him. Lorena sure wasn’t the first blue-blooded female wanting to do that to a terrible man. But she actually DID IT. There’s also The Burning Bed, best known as a 1984 TV-movie starring Farrah Fawcett that was based on the real-life 1977 incident in which Francine Hughes set the bed her husband was sleeping in on fire, after years of domestic abuse by him. Francine actually DID IT.
From fictional Cassie to Lorena and Francine, these women targeted the man or men in which their indiscretions were too great to be ignored, forgiven, or left up to the so-called esoteric powers that be or even the law. Promising Young Woman isn’t okay with the much touted logic of being okay with never getting an apology or atonement. Or with the horrific reality that many simply do not care about particular tragedies and crimes until it happens to them or someone they love dearly.
Where is the empathy?
And the accountability?
This movie is sure one hell of a ride. While I’ve seen the film described as a dark comedy and a thriller for the #MeToo era, I would describe the film with a very specific category, Netflix-style, as an Uncomfortable Psychological Thriller. Technically, that would make it a suspense, right? But I hesitate to call it that because PYW isn’t some exciting, sexy joy ride of a flick. I was on the edge of my seat not due to adrenaline rising but anxiety while watching it. Though I was team Cassie, she’s so daring in her missions, I was nervous and in awe. And because I watched it at home, I had the luxury of pausing the movie a few of times, just so I could breathlessly exclaim “Whaaaat?!” like Oprah Winfrey interviewing Meghan Markle. I’m not even trying to be funny. I had those moments!
Fennell’s script is so biting, as is Mulligan’s performance. You will be transfixed. As Fennell said, during an interview with The A.V. Club, “Female rage is something that we all find, culturally, problematic. Very unpleasant. It’s not something we want to look at. It’s sort of almost freak-ish for women to be angry. Whereas for men, it’s sort of rewarded. There are plenty of movies like this, where men go on revenge journeys. So I guess I wanted to re-examine the female-led revenge movie. And put a real woman at the center of it and have her rage manifest itself in a way that feels inherently female to me…”
On the flip side, due to the intensity and look of the film, I still wished I had seen in a cinema.
As I mentioned earlier, from the trailer and promo shoots, I couldn’t tell what the movie was about at all. Even though I found the candy-land color story, the vivid neon aesthetics, and the movie title written in lipstick oh so appealing, wtf was PYW?!
I was also pleasantly surprised to see Mulligan playing a character with such looks from scene to scene. I can’t recall her playing a character prior to PYW in which their costume was just as much center stage as her motivations and dialogue. (Okay, wait, she was in The Great Gatsby remake by Baz Luhrmann. But her looks as Daisy Buchanan feel very Carey Mulligan!)
Hair, makeup and costumes matters no matter the role. But while watching, I was loving the tousled wavy hair, the ponytails, the hoops (hoops on Carey!), and the fashion that went from pop grunge wear to business chic, and then towards the end an old school nurse outfit with a striped wig, the latter going hand-in-hand with Cassie’s multi-colored Sweet-tarts painted manicure that’s worn throughout the movie. It’s here that the fashion, hair and makeup really collide in Promising Young Woman.
And can we discuss that, because it matters!
Cassie’s nails completely stood out to me, and that’s saying a lot as the detailing in PYW is magnificent. I’m appreciative that Media Pixel Fan Girl did a short video about that Cassie’s candy nails on YouTube.
Angie Wells, PYM’s makeup department head whose work can also be seen in the recent drama Slyvie’s Love, gave a breakdown briefing of how the makeup was applied in the film. She even hilariously nicknamed one of Cassie’s nightlife looks as “Homemade Kardashian.”
Also, here’s a quote from the costume designer Nancy Steiner about the constant sartorial reinventions: “For Cassie’s character, there was a lot of hair, makeup and costume, as it always is for any character, but especially in this film because she’s changing her personality, her location, and she’s changing the way she dresses for every occasion. It’s very much about a disguise.”
Lastly, because I’m not even going to get into whether I believe the ending betrayed the audience and justice for victims and survivors (I don’t. The great debate is a passionate one being held online. The Daily Beast in particular took the film to task on many accounts. And while I found the article’s contrarian attempts a little sigh inducing–it’s a two-in-one review–it reminded me that I must see Michaela Coel’s acclaimed I May Destroy You), I do want to mention how Promising Young Woman brought to mind the very distinct subgenre of rape and revenge in film. I felt a tad crazy at first for thinking that but when I Googled the genre, total vindication came over me as The New Yorker was thinking the same thing. I hadn’t even typed in the movie. Just the genre.
In the article, Carmen Maria Machando ponders how PYW fits and dismantles the genre. The following excerpt echoes my thoughts on how the film publicly reprimands a culture at large that has taken too long to convict and rebuke gendered violence; its constant glamorization of sexual violence (as reviewers have pointed out that the word “rape” is never actually uttered, and the act never shown. This is almost a rarity in film, indie or mainstream), the normalization of victim-blaming and the criminalization of girlhood. In the many videos I watched on PYW after I completed viewing the film, Fennell, in addition to online commentary, suggested that the use of pastels and brights and certain songs were to meant to celebrate things and colors often pejoratively referred to as “girly.”
You will struggle in deciding that Cassie’s relentless mission in the end was depressingly… 1) justified 2) understandable or 3) distressing.
“It is crucial to the story of “Promising Young Woman” that guilt is not limited to Nina’s rapist—indeed, it is nearly ubiquitous, shared by all of the movie’s male characters.
But there is no such coddling in “Promising Young Woman,” and this lack of hedging feels both furious and maddeningly correct. There’s a reason Cassie is called a crazy fucking bitch, a psycho, by the men of the film. One of her targets, at a moment of extreme vulnerability, can’t help himself. “You’re insane,” he tells her. She replies, with a laugh, “You know what, I honestly don’t think I am.” And I think she’s right. She has the clarity and prophecy of her priestess namesake; it’s not her fault that no one is listening.”
On YouTube, there are a lot of super in-depth looks at PYW. But I wouldn’t suggest watching any of these until you’ve seen the movie!
- Promising Young Woman Weaponizes the Audience’s Expectations | In The Frame https://youtu.be/knmIL7MiZT8
- Scene at the Academy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMq-sVpVEL0
- The Colors of Revenge || A Promising Young Woman Analysis https://youtu.be/UWemHFbc0Pw
- Promising Young Woman’s SHOCKING Ending | Explained https://youtu.be/Ghn-UNTTSJQ
- Carey Mulligan & Director Emerald Fennell Breakdown ‘Promising Young Woman’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9HWvyoZE-Q&list=PL_W1VqbiY21mdKiKZ8Dq9BNgkwgBNsibM&index=2https://youtu.be/H9HWvyoZE-Q
- Promising Young Woman Ending Explained https://youtu.be/o4QRoK3H9rs
- My First Video: A Rape Survivor’s Rant on Promising Young Woman https://youtu.be/qXWs6vU9o-Y
- ‘Promising Young Woman’: A Great Film that Betrays its Sexual Violence Message https://youtu.be/SdUiRBs6enk