Photo: ‘Promising Young Woman’/Focus Features
Walking into the theatre that evening (mask intact) I was buzzing with the excitement of watching what I had secretly hoped was the equivalent of Friday the 13th, only, not starring Jason Voorhees–but Carey Mulligan as the femme fatale petrifier, massacring misogyny both literally and metaphorically. I was admittedly so eager to satisfy some primitive desire for violent vengeance-thought only appeasable by the unruly image of men getting their throats slit (or at the very least choked or poisoned!) that I had painstakingly guided my heart astray under the expectation that I would sit in the audience cheering jovially like some rallied sports fan. I did in fact do some cheering, but I had steered my heart very wrong.
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Emerald Fennell–writer, director, and co-producer of the film– accomplished a brave feat in the making of this story. While it was still very much a film about seeking vengeance, it was much less of the revenge-porn I so destructively anticipated, and much more a brutal cry for justice and reform. The film stars an exceptional Carey Mulligan as the mysterious med school drop-out turned sardonic barista, who spends her nights frequenting night clubs and reeling in men willing to take advantage of her vulnerable state (performatively pretending she is too inebriated to stand). Great casting all around, co-starring Bo Burnham as Dr. Ryan Cooper, featuring Molly Shannon, Alison Brie, and Max Greenfield alongside Adam Brody as the insufferable antagonists.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) proceeds to horrify, emasculate, and humiliate the men she lures in at clubs after they cross non-consensual boundaries–praying especially on their own self-aggrandizing hero and “good-guy” complexes. Surprisingly the act of dehumanizing them satisfies her enough, and she leaves without any morbid disemboweling or neck-breaking. It’s more of a silent serpent approach, slithering a venomous threat into their subconscious, almost to hiss “You’ve been warned, little man.”
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Scraping by at the local coffee shop and still living at home with her parents, (played by the beloved Jennifer Coolidge, and the tender oddball Clancy Brown) it becomes clear that her quirky rebellion from societal norms is not due to a sheer distaste for convention, but more of disdain for life. She is pessimistic about changing things, distrustful of all men, and most notably – unimaginably livid and miserable over the suicide of her close friend, Nina, whom she attended med school with. Her suicide was the result of a public rape, which was essentially shoved under the radar – as report of her abuse was hush hushed and wiped off as an unsupported claim containing “insubstantial evidence”. Something all too common in our history, and sadly, in our present.
‘Promising Young Woman’ – The Rapist Regime
Why did I hesitate to type the word rape, and more-over, the word ‘rapist’? It stings, there is a stigma about it, it is nearly inutterable. It’s becoming more “tolerable” in our culture to call it like it is, but there is still a resounding discomfort around it, and while it’s polite to be wary of triggering women who have experienced this trauma, alternatively it invalidates the suffering endured when one hesitates to condemn the crime for what it is. It’s akin to saying “Voldermort” in the wizarding world – ”The word that shall not be uttered”.
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The underlying implication of this hesitation is what I consider the heart of what drives this narrative–the negation of a woman’s claims, the denial of its violence, and the collective downplay of its normalization in our culture. After engaging in sly mischievous acts as the result of her well-formulated grander plot, Carey places multiple characters under various forms of emotional torment and manipulation–forcing them to confront the hem of their hypocrisies and contend with their internalized moral justifications. It’s uncomfortable, it’s twisted, enraging, dehumanizing, and morally questionable-– but more importantly, it is unimaginably heroic, satisfying, and sadly necessary.
After squaring in on her pious plot, it is alarming–though furiously unsurprising–how little has been done, or even acknowledged, for her close friend Nina. It’s disgusting. The one accused (played by Adam Brody) was a man of status and power, someone who, if publicly deemed guilty–could mark a stain on the University and on anyone who complies to threaten his freedom or reputation. All too familiar–but not nearly presented enough in Cinema today, so this film did some serious ground-breaking work to illustrate the horrifically cemented power-hold of patriarchal influence on institutions and systems. Just sweep it under the rug, is the motto.
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What was especially poignant, and particularly triggering, was the support the abusers received not only from those in service to protect them legally or to maintain their positions/protect their status–but from their friends and other women. The degree to which we have been conditioned and taught to shun other women, invalidate their suffering, and internalize the guilt is deplorable. It’s as if, women were not only burdened with the trauma of having to casually dismiss acts of sexual aggression and dehumanization-but then expected to demonize any other women’s attempts at exposing the cultural perpetuation. Perhaps born of a fear of being dismissed, disregarded, or shunned themselves. It’s an absolute hell house, a sinister societal architecture of tasteless design for women to burn in.
During the last stage of her plan, Carey finally confronts the abuser of her friend Nina. What we see transpire there is one of the most cringe-worthy responses to a crime, perhaps ever. The abuser, free from any consequences of his crime and succeeding in his profession, has a full-blown pity party for himself while his empty shell of a friend played by Max Greenfield, consoles him through his tears–assuring him it is not his fault thereby freeing him of any guilt or remorse–not that he displayed the capacity for such empathetic feelings anyways. It’s truly the batter of every woman’s nightmares. A relentless display of toxic masculinity that reaps no ramifications. A man rapes, is praised and pitied, removed from all condemnation societally and psychologically.
But her master plan is not a failure.
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Monsters Attack, Masters Maneuver
Retrospectively, her efforts at the nightclubs prove to be part of a grander goal, curated craftily to flag out skeezy perpetrators to unsuspecting women, without them even knowing they had a secret lady Batman behind the scenes doing their biddings. She found a way of catching the dirty fish in a pond of many, forcing them to reconsider their efforts to get laid (by non-consensually exploiting inebriated women–raping them) and destroying their egos in the process. This way, they might think twice about repeating such gestures, for how many other women are playing drunk at these night clubs seeking to patronize them–or worse?
Again, it reminded me of Harry Potter for some reason– how the Dark Arts had its limitations, and those who were granted the gift of dark power must yield it responsibly, maintained by the strict prohibition of using the “Unforgivable Curses”. The director’s choice to draw this invisible–but clear line– of moral boundaries in the character’s pursuits of justice is what procured such a profound impact when all was said and done. The plot was fashioned as a slow-release–meticulously unfolding the scroll of her masterful map–leaving the audience in a state of uncomfortable uncertainty, but it plays its purpose.
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Even though I was wriggling in my seat, silently egging her to toss away all the dirty laundry disguised as men–I came to admire her approach in servitude of something greater. She simply let the dirty fish free– but with them, she left the invisible mark of one who is tainted, Pavlov’s dogging them to heed caution with every woman they consider taking advantage of. It’s a genius gesture really, perhaps they will convey to their friends that there are secret women plotting to blackmail them should they cross any lines.
And if their pseudo-feminist proclamations (“Oh you’ve read Emily Dickenson, some progressive blogs, and voted to support female rights? Applauds to you!”) are in fact ingenuine, serving as a virtue signal badge to get laid–or as a deep justification that what they’re doing is not rape–then perhaps inciting fear and threat is the only way for them to actually follow through on some feminist values or dare I say– respecting women’s bodily autonomy. Once the plot wrapped and tied it’s pretty little bow, I was satisfied and even more grateful that I didn’t walk into a feminist remake of Friday the 13th.
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Although some incidents were powerfully triggering beyond imagination, (there was a moment in the theatre where I was shaking/ so filled with rage I had to ball my fists so as not to slam them around) I am infinitely grateful that this story presented its unrelenting flavors unabashed and unfiltered. Heed with caution when watching, especially if you have been abused or raped–it is a story that hits very close to home for many women and can surely flare up traumatic emotions.
‘A Promising Young Woman’ amplifies and successfully educates viewers about the real injustices women face in our culture today and have faced for far too long. The heartless, vindictive, immoral vandalizing of women’s rights, as well as the psychological/ societal repercussions of internalized misogyny, are very raw– and very real. It was an honor, a learning experience, and honestly validating to acknowledge the horrors of indifference in the face of injustice. I’m proud that this story is being projected for everyone to see and contemplate. I think its message is crucial, and perhaps its very existence is the silver lining whisper that reform is underway. Stellar work by Emerald Fennell in her directorial debut.
Director/Writer/co-producer: Emerald Fennell will collaborate with Andrew Lloyd Webber in a new musical, ‘Cinderella’, with plans to open in London in May 2021.
WRITER, DIRECTOR: Emerald Fennell
CAST: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Chris Lowell, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardsonm Alfred Molina, Molly Shannon, Angele Zhou
PRODUCERS: Emerald Fennell, Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara, Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Ashley Fox
MUSIC: Anthony Willis | CINEMATOGRAPHY: Benjamin Kracun
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Melissa McGrath is a writer for Hollywood Insider, offering rich and engaging content for reviews and features. Melissa feels at home with Hollywood Insider’s lively team who share an equal passion for the art of cinema. Having sought out compelling stories her whole life, she is eager to examine and share her observations with others interested in thought-provoking material. She believes in changing the world through meaningful dialogue and hopes to provide helpful insight with her work. She values open discussions concerning morality, culture, personal development, and holds a soft spot for cathartic humor. Through the art of storytelling, journalism, and cinema, Melissa seeks to help build a strong community of free-thinkers and cultivate a deeper understanding of the human experience.