WARNING: This review contains major content spoilers.
After watching Promising Young Woman once, I felt like I had seen it twice — each time with different eyes. The film buff in me loved it. I thought the movie was well written and well paced, with a twist that wasn’t necessarily expected, but made perfect sense for the character and for the story. I thought it had some gorgeous visuals, great one-liners, and a killer soundtrack — not to mention fleeting but memorable scenes of beloved Laverne Cox as a cafe owner and Alison Brie as an uppity old college friend.
The woman in me was conflicted. Was this story a triumph? Was it a total loss? Could Promising Young Woman be anything other than tragedy if our protagonist’s insatiable lust for revenge led to her downfall, even if her death was essential in achieving justice at the end of the movie?
I don’t know what it was. Me and my roommates stared at the screen in utterly shocked silence at the realization that yes, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was dead and Schmidt from New Girl was helping hide the body.
The film started with us laughing at the dark humor, reminiscing about Bo Burnham’s early fame during our middle school days, and cheering when Cassie scared the absolute shit out of another would-be rapist. It felt great to cheer for it. It felt cathartic — an avenue for all the pent up frustration that comes with being a woman, where dangerous men lurk around every corner and in plain sight as well. As friends of survivors, there was a dark sense of justice — a sense of yes, yes, yes, when Cassie left her victim blaming ex-friend drunk and alone, when she led the Dean who had refused to hold the rapists accountable to believe the Dean’s daughter may now be in the exact situation she ignored before.
What hurt the most is that this story felt so true. Watching this with my girlfriend and roommates — all of us young women in college — we knew the tragic story of Nina could easily be the story of any one of us. If one of us had been Nina, how many of us would become Cassie? We of course know people who have survived traumas similar to the horrific gang rape of Nina at a college party gone awry. We have loved ones who carry the weight of a sexual assault with them every day. At parties, we watch each other’s drinks and are careful never to get too drunk. We avoid men we don’t know and we don’t walk alone. Yet many of the victims in our lives took all these precautions as well — they were violated all the same.
It’s needless to say that this was a story we could all relate to and see ourselves in.
Promising Young Woman was a “fuck you” to every rape apologist we’ve ever encountered and argued with because we know that when the tables are turned, these people realize they’re wrong. It’s all the victim’s fault for being drunk until you’ve had one too many and don’t know where your friends went. It only happens to that type of girl until your daughter is alone with a group of college-aged boys and a bottle of vodka. It’s so easy to dismiss until it happens to you.
Promising Young Woman gave us the thrill and satisfaction of revenge with the comfort that, in all of her schemes, Cassie only tricked her targets into thinking something had happened — something that made them realize how wrong they were. It scratched an itch deep in the young female psyche that left us eager and ready for more even as the hold revenge had on Cassie’s life tightened and tightened.
Isn’t it nice to have a movie like this? Can you imagine a better fantasy than scaring the absolute shit out of these creeps?
It couldn’t last forever.
The film, dark to begin with, takes a turn for the tragically bleak when Cassie — upon realizing even the man she loved was culpable in the rape and death of her closest friend — is smothered to death by the very rapist who violated Nina all those years ago.
Given that this was a black comedy, we watched with bated breath, waiting for Cassie to fake him out and come reeling back, scalpel in hand. We went through the five stages of grief in that living room, rapidly transitioning between there’s no way to what the hell is this?! to oh God please no and finally they really killed her off.
As a movie lover and as far as writing goes, I thought it was a bold writing choice and made the serious message of Promising Young Woman all the more poignant. But watching the movie as a young woman? I felt devastated.
Do we ever win? Are we destined to spend our whole lives running from rape and mourning the ones who didn’t run fast enough? Will justice always cost this much?
Promising Young Woman is a movie I want every man to watch, but it isn’t a movie I want my future daughter to see.