Content warning for mentions and discussions of rape, suicide, and death
Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell, is a truly brilliant and subversive female revenge story. This gripping psychological thriller kept me on the edge of my seat for its nearly two-hour run time and stayed with me long after its credits rolled. It handles the dark subject matter with care while still sporting a poppy feminine aesthetic, a badass protagonist, and a rom-com story on the side. Although it blends elements of multiple movie genres, this story is fundamentally a rape-revenge story. But Promising Young Woman sets itself apart from other films of that genre, making itself far more meaningful and topical than what has come before it.
The movie follows protagonist Cassie, as she deals with the aftermath of the rape and implied suicide of her best friend, Nina. Her life, formerly on a promising path as a gifted medical student, gets derailed by the tragedy that took her friend. As the events in the movie unfold, Cassie finds herself on a quest to hold all those who wronged Nina accountable and eventually finds herself confronting Nina’s rapist.
Despite its dark subject matter, Promising Young Woman is a film that is undeniably fun, intermingling heightened tension with cutting, clever humor. This is highlighted by its aesthetic; unlike other movies of this genre, the film has a “girlier” appeal. Cassie goes to confront a rapist wearing a rainbow wig whilst an eerie cover of “Toxic” by Britanny Spears plays in the background. She challenges the patriarchy with ribbons in her hair, and when she’s not on her vengeful rampage, she even sparks up a sweet romance with a cute guy. Not only does this celebrate feminine aesthetics that are often dismissed as frivolous, taking them seriously in their own right, but in an interview with The Film Stage, writer and director Emerald Fennell described how this candy-coated, inviting world sets up the perfect trap. Pastels, humor, and a fun rom-com storyline are the trojan horse through which the film delivers poignant messages about society.
What most interestingly sets the film apart from other rape-revenge stories is that the rape itself is never shown on screen. In Game of Thrones, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and other media that feature this kind of narrative (which are often written and directed by men), the camera invites an almost gratuitous look at rape. It turns the tragedy into a perverse sexual spectacle. Rape is sometimes even problematically seen as the beginning of the protagonist’s journey into becoming a fierce and powerful person — like Daenerys in the TV show Game of Thrones for instance — which fails to reflect the reality of sexual assault and the complex, damaging effects victims endure. At the same time, it subliminally pushes the message that rape can be empowering and even positive for women — that even in negative situations, women draw the most power from being sexually desired by a man. However, as Cassie enacts her mighty revenge on the people who wronged her friend, the filmmakers make a point of showing us the toll it takes on her. Cassie is willing to throw away her future in order to get justice. Rape is never viewed as a source of empowerment for Cassie or her friend Nina. The film makes its audience, Cassie, and even her family deal with the consequences of this.
The nature of Cassie’s revenge is also a novelty in this genre. Instead of fighting violence with violence, picking up a weapon, and spilling blood, Cassie’s revenge is more psychological and, debatably, more detrimental. Cassie almost never physically harms her victims, deliberately choosing not to perpetuate violence. Instead, she makes people question their implicit assumption that they are good. Beyond the screen, she makes us question how good someone can really be if they contribute to or stay silent in the face of violence against women.
Indeed, many of the people Cassie must confront in her revenge quest seem good to us from the outset. This is actually an intentional choice highlighted by the film’s casting. Likable actors remembered for their roles as lovable characters from other media are made into the movie’s villains. This subversion of our expectations provides topical commentary. The people who hurt women are not always head frat boys, or strangers hiding in dark alleys. They can be doctors, nerds, and so-called “nice guys” as well. They can even be women, as Cassie’s confrontation with two women in the story reveals that girls too can contribute to rape culture. These casting choices also force us to confront the difference between what we want to believe of people and what they are actually capable of. By casting these villains to be played by likable actors, we as the audience naturally want to see the good in them. We are made to be complicit. Would we believe accusations against them if the film did not explicitly, irrefutably show us the harm that they have done? As Fennell puts it herself in an interview with the American Film Institute, “It’s not complicated when it’s heroes and villains. It’s complicated when it’s your friends who do something awful.”
This gets to the point that Promising Young Woman is not pointing a finger at a few bad apples. The thing that sets this film apart the most from any other of its genre is that the villain is not the rapist. At least, it’s not really. “Nobody in this film is a bad person,” Fennell said in an interview with FabTV. Excusing these acts of violence as simply the products of a few bad people would be too easy and too simple, leaving us, the viewers, unaccountable. The real villain, instead, is a society that enables and perpetuates rape culture. Ultimately, because we are all a part of this society, we are all complicit to a certain extent as well. We passively perpetuate the misogyny that allows tragedies like these to take place. With nearly one in five women experiencing attempted or completed rape during their lifetime and only 2% to 10% of sexual assault reports being false, Promising Young Woman is a hard film to watch — but an important one as well. It begs us to wake up and become more aware of the ways we unknowingly contribute to rape culture and it opens our eyes to the violence against women that has been normalized and thus, excused. As Fennell iterated to the American Film Institute, “There’s literally nothing in it, including the worst thing in it, that we haven’t seen in a comedy and laughed at.” By the end of this film, I didn’t really see what was so funny anymore.