“Promising Young Woman”: Disturbing. Intriguing. Entertaining?

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Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Director Emerald Fennell succeeds in unnerving the audience of “Promising Young Woman,” and for good reason. This is a film that is meant to bother you. 

Carey Mulligan assumes a flawless American accent to play the disillusioned, sardonic antihero Cassie, who was once the eponymous “promising young woman.” Together with her childhood friend Nina, the two were at the top of their class in med school, with brilliant futures ahead of them.

We meet Cassie in altogether different circumstances: alone, apparently too drunk to stand, and the subject of disturbing, predatory interest from a group of young men at a club. This, the audience learns, is what Cassie does: “Every week, I go to a club. I act like I’m too drunk to stand. And every week, a nice guy comes over to see if I’m ok.”

There’s a catch, of course, and that is that the nice guy is never just “a nice guy.” Every time, without fail, the man tries to take advantage of her drunken state and undress her–until Cassie opens her eyes, smiles, and asks in a perfectly sober voice while sitting up, “Hey. What are you doing?” Horrified, the man realizes both that he had the full intention of raping Cassie, and that Cassie can now press charges against him. 

It’s certainly an odd tactic. Many other reviewers claim that her trick is dishonest, bating, and provocative. And to be fair to such reviewers, her actions are indeed risky, unwise, and rooted in a desire for revenge. She plays cruel tricks on men and women alike whom she deems as complicit in sexual violence–but she never physically hurts anyone, and in no instance does she intentionally put others in legitimate, bodily danger. 

Some viewers have insisted that Cassie as a protagonist is too problematic to be likable. And yet many of the main figures from our Lit. Trad. classes–Odysseus, Raskolnikov and Hamlet, to name a few–are equally, if not more, problematic. Their stories are still nonetheless compelling, and no less valuable than those of more conventionally upstanding protagonists. 

Whether you like Cassie or not is irrelevant. Her strength as a character arguably lies in that she doesn’t care, either way.

Curiously, there is very little violence in this film. The treatment of its obviously sensitive topic is frank, but tactful. Nothing graphic, sexual or otherwise, is ever shown on screen, although sexual violence is discussed in discrete terms.

The ending of “Promising Young Woman” has justifiably gained attention, leaving audiences either in stunned silence or tears. What struck me most about it was its realism. Though indeed shocking, the conclusion of the film would not fall outside of the realm of possibility in real life. 

It’s jarring to people that sexual violence can have deadly consequences. In the words of Cassie herself, “Look how easy that was. I guess you just had to think about it in the right way. I guess it feels different when it’s someone you love.”

In the immediate aftermath of the #MeToo movement, many critics have complained that “witch hunts” ensue when women step forward and name a man for having assaulted them. 

“It’s every guy’s nightmare, getting accused like that!” cries a man in the film. Cassie’s retort says it all: “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” 

This is the heart of the film: realistically addressing the subject of rape, and giving agency and empathy to its survivors. Entirely worthwhile, “Promising Young Woman” is nevertheless not an easy film to watch. It will bother you, and therein lies its promise.

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