Movies

Promising Young Woman’s Flaws Run Deeper Than Its Ending

The movie can’t have its pastel-colored cupcake and eat it, too.

Carey Mulligan in a nurse's outfit with a tray of tools.
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Focus Features

This article contains spoilers for both Promising Young Woman and the HBO series I May Destroy You.

Now that writer-director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature Promising Young Woman has started to garner awards recognition (it’s already been nominated for four Golden Globes and the top honors from many other organizations), I keep flashing back on my ambivalent-to-negative response to this movie back when it first arrived in theaters on Christmas Day, an ambivalence that, upon rewatching, has hardened into outright dislike. I’ve talked about Promising Young Woman on a couple of Slate podcasts since, but I never properly reviewed it, nor is that what I propose to do here. What I want is to understand better why this movie left me cold despite its many strengths, and to question the critical consensus that has, with a few exceptions, praised it as a provocative feminist subversion of the rape-revenge genre.

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It’s not that Promising Young Woman doesn’t offer a lot to like, especially in its first hour and a half. On top of Carey Mulligan’s fierce lead performance, which deserves all of the accolades it’s gotten, there’s a top-flight supporting cast, bold pastel-forward production design, and a soundtrack of acid-sweet needle drops, including that haunting all-strings cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” But however appealing its Skittles-hued shell, this movie’s treatment of consent, accountability, and rape culture struck me as muddled and counterproductive in ways that the film’s clearly gifted writer-director sometimes appeared maddeningly unable to see.

My problems with Promising Young Woman are not limited to its ending, though we will get around to its wildly divisive final twists. They kick in not long after after the extended pre-credit sequence, which, along with the Cyndi Lauper–pink opening titles that follow, constitutes my favorite part of the movie. When we first meet her, Mulligan’s Cassie is seen pulling a shrewd con on a would-be rapist. Her makeup smeared just so, her skirt hiked up to her hips, she fakes being near-blackout drunk in a bar, thereby luring a nearby bro (a shrewdly cast Adam Brody) to offer her an ostensibly gentlemanly ride home. When he instead takes her up to his place, pours her a large glass of neon-orange kumquat liqueur, and tries to get her wasted enough to assault her, Cassie waits till the very moment he starts to slip off her underwear, then snaps into icy sobriety and asks what the hell he thinks he’s doing.

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In this scene and a later one with Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the aspiring assaulter, the man’s immediate response is one of fear and shame; the audience gets a quick glimpse of his chastened face before a cut to Cassie’s steely-eyed expression as she strides away. Her recurring nocturnal expeditions to track down the shittiest men in her unnamed suburban town don’t ever seem to end in violence—despite the sly misdirection of those opening credits, where the trickle of ketchup down Cassie’s shirt as she strides away from the scene munching a hot dog is at first meant to be mistaken for blood. No, she is after vigilante justice of a different kind: She forces the men trying to violate her to confront their own worst selves. (“I’m a nice guy!” objects Mintz-Plasse’s sniveling character, to which she counters, “Are you?”)

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That a habit as dangerous as Cassie’s—the writer-director has described it in interviews as a kind of addiction, an analogy Mulligan’s performance powerfully suggests—would consistently end in little more than a successful shaming followed by a safe escape seems unlikely, but that’s one of those givens you have to accept in a stylized thriller like Promising Young Woman. Still, the premise suggests further questions, both logical and moral, that the movie’s setup quickly glides over. Are we to infer that, once they’ve been honey-trapped and exposed in this way, her marks will stop targeting intoxicated women? And in the small suburban town where Cassie lives (a place that’s never named, presumably to make it more of an Everytown), would she not have gained a reputation as the fake-drunk girl after years of pulling this stunt?

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Even once you’ve accepted the fantasy elements of the premise (this is, after all, a movie that deliberately presents itself as a kind of twisted fairy tale), the motivation behind Cassie’s methodical quest to expose the town’s patriarchal structures seems worthy of more scrutiny than the screenplay gives it. Over the first half-hour, it’s slowly revealed that there’s a reason this bright 30-year-old woman has given up on her dream of being a doctor to move back in with her parents and work in a café. When she was in medical school years before, her best friend since childhood, Nina, was publicly assaulted at a campus party, unsuccessfully sought justice through the school’s legal channels, and—it is implied but never stated—subsequently killed herself. Cassie’s quest for retribution, then, is not on her own behalf but on someone else’s, someone who never asked to be avenged in this way and who, one could imagine, might have valued her best friend’s safety and well-being over such a high-risk performance of symbolic justice. In fact, there’s a character later in the film who points out this very fact—Nina’s mother, played by Molly Shannon, shows up in one scene to offer Cassie a comfortingly infantilizing juice box and some advice: “Move on,” she tells her, “for all of us.”

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Others have already dug deeper into the issues raised by Cassie’s yearslong fixation on posthumously avenging her friend. As the critic Mary Beth McAndrews, herself a sexual assault survivor, has written in a thoughtful essay on RogerEbert.com, the movie “doesn’t grapple with the ramifications of Cassie deeming herself the avenging angel without Nina’s explicit consent, and in fact doesn’t even consider the concept of consent outside of the world of sex.” Her compulsively repeated actions on behalf of Nina, who never appears in the film except in the old photos Cassie keeps on her laptop, constitute “a violation of their friendship”—a violation that drags into its wake at least three other women, one of them completely unconnected with the events surrounding Nina’s rape.

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In one scene, Cassie essentially abducts the teenage daughter of the med school dean (Connie Britton) who dismissed Nina’s accusations. No real harm comes to the girl—Cassie has stashed her away somewhere safe in order to pretend to the dean that her child is at that moment in danger of being gang-raped in the same dorm room where her friend was harmed years before. But if the scene in the dean’s office is meant to give the audience the satisfaction of watching the callous administrator get a taste of her own medicine, it fails miserably. Instead, we start to lose trust in Cassie as a moral actor—a narrative choice that could be defended on the grounds of its complex “ambiguity” were it not for the ending, which, as we’ll see, depends on the audience accepting her as a righteous if damaged angel of vengeance.

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An even more upsetting instance of violation comes when Cassie meets for lunch at a fancy hotel with an old med school colleague, Madison (Alison Brie), who sided with Nina’s abuser at the time of the incident. Cassie manages to get Madison extremely drunk while she herself stays sober, then tells a man she’s hired to take her up to a hotel room, put her to bed, and leave her there for the night. The idea is for Madison to wake up unclear on what happened to her while she was in a blackout state—an uncertainty Cassie lets her live with for several days before admitting, upon being confronted, that it was a ruse and nothing happened.

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The notion that the best payback for a person who has minimized someone else’s rape in the past is to be terrorized by the false belief they themselves have been raped seems at best troubling and, at worst, sociopathic. Admittedly, the movie freely acknowledges that Cassie’s pleasure in psychologically torturing other women by making them believe they or someone close to them has experienced her own worst nightmare is a symptom of her spiraling obsession. But Fennell also stages these scenes in such a way as to make us identify with Cassie’s pleasure. They are suspenseful, even cathartic, in the cheerfully bloodthirsty spirit of the old-school rape-revenge thrillers this movie nods at in its deliberately pulpy high-femme style.

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This is the crux of my trouble with Promising Young Woman: It can’t decide whether it wants the audience to cheer for its heroine’s cleverness and pluck or worry about her mental and physical safety, and its attempts to have it both ways muddy the movie’s moral waters. Fennell tries to provide the satisfaction of a successful revenge plot while also questioning the possibility, or desirability, of such an outcome. Telling a story of violation and the quest for revenge with this kind of double-edged ambiguity isn’t impossible—for an example, look at Michaela Coel’s extraordinary 12-episode series I May Destroy You, which aired on HBO last summer. Its finale repeatedly revisits a scene very similar to the one Promising Young Woman opens on. Coel’s character, Arabella, who as the show began was hazily realizing she had been drugged and raped by a stranger, recognizes the perpetrator at the same bar where it happened. After she spots him, she and her best friend (Weruche Opia) put together a plan: Arabella will pretend to be drunk, lure the guy into the bathroom, and then snap into sobriety just in time to …

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I’ll leave off where I May Destroy You goes from there, except to note that
the rest of the finale involves a complex three-part fantasy sequence where Arabella works through different ways her attempt at revenge might have
gone. Physical eye-for-an-eye vengeance proves to be only momentarily thrilling, with stomach-churning complications; a verbal confrontation followed by calling the cops also fails to provide a sense of closure; and finally, a reimagining of the whole experience that gives Arabella back her own sense of agency and desire helps her to let go of her trauma and start to heal. The series ends on an unresolved but hopeful note: After some time has passed, Arabella and her friend, who is also dealing with the memory of a past assault, have been able to move on with their lives despite the impossibility of a cleanly satisfying resolution.

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I May Destroy You shows one powerful way of reimagining the rape-revenge genre from a post-#MeToo perspective, one that acknowledges the depressing ubiquity of rape culture without succumbing to it. That isn’t the only possible path, of course, but it’s infinitely more nuanced than the one Promising Young Woman chooses. In telling the story of three black friends—two straight women and a gay man—who are all dealing with consent violations of different kinds, I May Destroy You also opens up perspectives on race and sexuality that Promising Young Woman leaves unexplored. I’ll leave it to Vulture’s always-incisive Alison Willmore to discuss the ways PYW weaponizes white femininity and just add that the movie’s most salient racial blind spot is the casting of the wonderful Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox as the Magical Black Cupcake Boss with no apparent backstory or life goals other than to support the fragile Cassie. And all of this made it that much more disappointing to see the Globes heap nominations on PYW in the film section while, in the TV categories, they didn’t even recognize I May Destroy You’s existence.

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As for the movie’s last half-hour: How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. It’s not simply because Cassie dies, smothered to death by Nina’s rapist Al (Chris Lowell) after she infiltrates his bachelor party disguised as a stripper. Watching Cassie suffocate in real time is a near-unbearable gut punch, but I respect Fennell’s choice to undercut our expectation of a triumphant resolution. When Cassie walks into the party, dressed as a rainbow-wigged candy striper, to the strains of that queasy Britney cover, the audience fears for her safety in a way we didn’t in those early scenes with easily discouraged would-be date rapists. The stakes have been raised in familiar genre-movie fashion—but instead of getting to turn the tables in a retaliatory bloodbath, Cassie experiences the horrific real-world worst outcome of having her life snuffed out and her body unceremoniously burned by the same man who once raped her best friend. It’s a sickening bait-and-switch but one that, given the movie’s ambiguous framing of Cassie’s quest for “empowerment,” could have made a kind of grim sense.

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My main objection to this movie’s third act comes after we have seen Cassie’s body disposed of in the woods. At that point, the film still has something like 20 dispiriting minutes to go. Her parents put out a missing persons bulletin. Her ex-boyfriend Ryan (Bo Burnham)—who after a cute rom-com-style courtship has revealed himself to be just another shitty man—is questioned by the police but conceals information that could have led them to her body. And Al, the rapist and now murderer, proceeds with his nuptials, which become the setting for the final scene. As Al and his bride are saying their bad self-written vows, Ryan, a guest at the ceremony, gets a series of prescheduled texts from Cassie, alerting him that the cops are on their way. Before leaving for the bachelor party, it turns out, she had arranged for the guilt-stricken lawyer who originally defended Al against rape charges (Alfred Molina) to receive evidence linking her to the fatal gathering. As the wedding guests are heading for the snack table, sirens can be heard approaching from afar. A protesting Al is whisked away just as Cassie’s last text to Ryan arrives: “Enjoy the wedding ;)”.

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The movie’s recourse to the police as Cassie’s posthumous saviors feels discordant, given that the preceding movie has gone to great lengths to establish that the justice system does little to nothing to help survivors. Given that Cassie invaded Al’s house, handcuffed him to a bed, and threatened to carve him up with a scalpel, won’t he easily manage to get off with a plea of self-defense? And even if he is convicted for her murder, how does that constitute justice for Nina’s rape, an entirely separate crime? I wouldn’t go quite so far as to call this resolution “copaganda,” but in its suggestion that Al’s arrest constitutes a posthumous victory for both Cassie and Nina, it doesn’t differ significantly from your garden-variety episode of Law & Order.

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For over a month now, I’ve been sitting uneasily with the Giving Tree–style message of this movie’s ending, which seems to expect us to find consolation in the fact that, as McAndrews put it, “two women had to die for a man just to get arrested.” The dark irony of that winky-face emoji suggests that Cassie has wreaked a kind of vengeance from beyond the grave—but was it worth it to lose her life for the satisfaction of (1) putting her murderer into the hands of a justice system that will likely exonerate him and (2) sending some saucy texts to a bad ex-boyfriend?

The last shot of Promising Young Woman returns to the spot where Cassie’s burned body was left in the woods, now being sniffed out by police dogs: Next to the pile of ashes is the broken-heart necklace she wore, engraved with Nina’s name. There’s a crushing nihilism to the intimation that Cassie’s death was a heroic self-sacrifice on her friend’s behalf. It’s as if the movie wants to provide the audience with the satisfaction of a successful revenge plot while robbing its main character of everything the quest for vengeance was meant to give her in the first place: agency, freedom, the chance to get on with her life and make it about more than the worst thing that ever happened to her. If there are assault survivors out there who find some kind of grim comfort in this bleak-yet-cute ending, more power to them. But if I, like Cassie, had a close friend who had been violently assaulted (and like virtually every woman in the world, I do), one of the first actions I would take to protect her would be to tell her not to watch this movie.

Read more in Slate about the Oscars.

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