The latest release by Emerald Fennell is an exercise in gaslighting that stabs you in the back
CN: major spoilers, rape, violence against women
Haunted by continuous delays to its release, the trailer for Promising Young Woman has been around for quite a while. The debut feature by writer-director Emerald Fennell – previously the showrunner of Killing Eve’s season two – has been marketed as a feminist take on the rape and revenge genre, in a similar fashion to 2017’s Revenge or the recently revisited Jennifer’s Body. The seductive trailer showcases a possibly drunk Cassie (Carey Mulligan) club-hopping and then nearly passed out until a guy approaches to see if “she’s okay”. Cue the guy attempting to sexually assault her, except that’s when Cassie pulls the rug from underneath him by sobering up and taking control of the situation. The trailer, smartly playing on the genre’s history, goes on to let us assume she kills men who previously dismissed her as an easy target.
But this is the film’s first surprise. Cassie doesn’t kill anyone, but rather uses the men’s surprise to lecture them on consent and make them feel like shit. Surprisingly, for a rape-revenge film, there is almost non-existent visual violence. Cassie isn’t even avenging her own abuse, but rather that of her best friend, Nina, who was raped by college classmates and then killed herself, having been unable to get justice and move on from her trauma.
Cassie’s objective similarly prevents her from being able to move on with her own life. A med-school dropout, she still lives with her parents and works at a local café. Her life, however pastel-coloured and aesthetically pleasing it may be, is stuck in a loop.
Upon hearing that Nina’s rapist, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), is back in the country to get married, Cassie turns her thirst for revenge against all those involved in Nina’s silencing, in a quest that leads her to him.
There’s a lot of new ground covered by the film. Two of the main people that Cassie wants payback from happen to be women: respectively, she and Nina’s best friend Madison (Alison Brie), who stood by as Nina was gang-raped and later dismissed it on account of Nina getting “too drunk”, and the college’s Dean (Connie Britton), who says she couldn’t in good faith “ruin the poor man’s life”. Rape culture isn’t just perpetrated by the men who rape, but by all those apologists in positions of power, women included, who turn a blind eye. The Dean’s words echo those of rape-apologists who value the accused’s good name and moral character over the victim’s statement (and often, concrete proof).
The casting choices stand out too: comedy actors play the worst characters. Almost wrapped up in their safe reputation, their fall from grace is all the more jarring. There are no “nice guys” or “good girls” – just assholes who know how to hide it. But while the villains, albeit mockingly, are layered, the hero – and those on her side – are only brush strokes.
A severely-underused Laverne Cox plays Cassie’s manager at the cafe, but she’s not allowed to do much except encourage Cassie to go on dates. Meanwhile, Nina lives on like a ghost through pictures and second-hand details. Her agency, and whether she would have actually wanted Cassie to carry on this revenge, is barely an afterthought.
We don’t learn anything about what Cassie loves that is not intrinsically linked to her nostalgic longing for Nina or her sassy belittling of awful men. And while Mulligan gives everything to the role and shows the fragility underneath the facade, Cassie feels more and more like a symbol, swiftly changing her whole appearance and personality based on her target. She annihilates herself while avenging a dead person’s agency. Even by the midpoint, when she considers moving on and gets in a relationship, the moment is condensed into a dialogue-less montage. And when she finally confronts Al Monroe, she is killed: suffocated and ultimately silenced in a terribly prolonged sequence that hits the three-minute mark.
Yes, you read that right. Cassie dies.
Watching the scene unfold is a peculiar experience, to say the least. I instinctively kept coming up with excuses or solutions that would allow for Cassie to be faking her own death. But eventually, we see Al burning her body, closing the door completely on a surprise comeback.
The tone of the film doesn’t shift that much either. The comedy vein persists, with only a thin layer of sadness creeping in. By the end of the film, the rapists and the now murderer do get arrested, thanks to an elaborate scheme that Cassie put in place in the event of her premature death. Does this mean that Cassie was actually suicidal when she put her plan into motion? We’re never told, but the film ends with a winky face text that Cassie had scheduled to go out while the arrest takes place. To end with the rapists being arrested is ironic – as if most trials don’t in fact end with the perpetrators getting off with a slap on the wrist.
Aside from the clear logical flaws, this outcome exposes the feature’s jarring inconsistency in tone. This is a tragic, hopeless, wrathful film wrapped in pink satin, sassy satire and punchlines. I don’t think Fennel nor the marketing team know who they’re making it for.
It feels dodgy, to say the least, that a film advertised as an escape fantasy for rape survivors can take such a turn. Women, especially those who have been through the nightmare of sexual assault, know full well how bitter the reality of rape is. If they wish to be reminded, they can turn on the news. On the basis of the trailer, it’s relatively safe to assume that the marketing and advertising of the film has hinted at another story, one that, albeit idealistic, could offer agency and the reclaiming of the usual narrative in stories tackling the issue of rape. The tagline calls it “a delicious take on revenge”. This promises to be a film about a survivor, but there’s nothing but victims in sight.
Fennel describes the film as a parallel to Cassie: aesthetically harmless and inviting, but ultimately dangerous. Since Cassie uses this trick on men, am I to assume the film, too, is meant for men? Is it perhaps meant for those boyfriends who’ve been dragged along to the movies to see a ‘girly’ film, somewhat bothered by the subtextual statement that “all men are trash”, only to be hit in the face with the reality of it all?
I am very inclined to say I’m tired of rape as a plot device. It’s been examined under every possible light and it’s reductive to think of violence against women as ‘just’ rape, which is the brutal culmination of a set of patriarchal aggressions. The film starts off well by withholding violence and examining the blurred lines of agency and consent, but ultimately stabs its main character in the back, along with those who trust the genre, for the sake of a righteous statement that feels empty and unoriginal. How many more promising young women are we willing to sacrifice to make the same point?
Promising Young Woman is out in the UK 5 February.
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures.
1. Cassie stands in the middle of a highway holding a crowbar. There is shattered red glass at her feet and she looks into the distance with a seemingly shocked expression.
2. A side portrait of Cassie in a nurse party outfit. She wears a rainbow wig.