Riding on the hackneyed proverb, “Those who seek revenge should dig two graves,” Promising Young Woman is Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut that explores the self-destructive nature of retribution. In this dark comedy-thriller about rape culture, revenge is piping-hot and bathed in Pepto-pink—all to distort reality and deceive its viewers.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is a 30-year-old medical school dropout, still reeling over her best friend’s suicide. The event has tormented Cassie for years, causing her to lash out and lead a double life. By day, she’s a bright bubble-gum-chewing barista; by night, she’s a pub-crawling sexual vigilante, determined to right her wrongdoers.
The storyline is invigorating and brilliant, switching the narrative from “he said she said” to “he did.” Cassie preys on predators by pretending to be intoxicated, letting “nice guys” take her home, unaware of her bait-and-switch tactics. Her modus operandi is cunning and accelerates the film’s off-kilter exploration of toxic masculinity and rape culture.
The film flirts with different genres as it unfolds, emphasizing its overarching deceit. With a juxtaposed happy, romantic montage fixed between brutally grim scenes to amplify the trauma that Cassie has experienced, it remains unclear what genre the audience is indulging in—whether romance or comedy, drama or psychological thriller.
Promising Young Woman stylizes incongruities, its pastel pinks and polka dot dresses shrouding Cassie’s trauma. These innocent elements suggest she’s been trapped at the age she saw her life fall apart. Now, she’s on the hunt. Her target: the masculine hands that hunted her. Ironically produced by Margot Robbie, this brutally grim Harlequin doesn’t stoop to abstract ideology but thirsts for retribution through action.
Drilling home the repulsive elements of rape culture, the film scrutinizes society for its ignorance of sexual violence, the pervasiveness of victim blaming, and the harsh consequences that assault has on those it touches.
In 1993, Michael Douglas’ Falling Down exposed white male rage emblematic of the Fox News generation. Promising Young Woman does the same for the #MeToo era as it wages war on social constructs. From its gritty opening bar scene commentary, it’s an audacious examination of rape culture, weaving dark humour into its daring fabric.
The film’s title—a reference to the Stanford University rapist Brock Turner being branded a “promising young man” in 2015—plays on the excuses that normalize sexual violence. With it, Fennell sought to expose society’s inclination to forgive affluent male abusers at the expense of their victims.
“I believe entirely in forgiveness,” says Fennel in an interview with Yahoo Entertainment, “but it’s interesting how the phrase ‘promising young woman’ is hardly ever used, and if it is, it usually describes a girl who’s no longer alive. You can only really be a ‘promising young woman’ when it’s too late, when your promise is completely aborted.”
Fennell says the film is about “how we have all been complicit in a toxic, sexist, abusive culture,” and so “there’s nothing in the film that isn’t extremely commonplace.”
Beneath its more overt references, Promising Young Woman is also ripe with symbolism. In Greek mythology, the priestess Cassandra was cursed to tell true prophecies but never be believed, similar to Cassie’s troublesome experiences. Elsewhere, our protagonist uses the alias “Daisy” when visiting the Dean. She quips, “Who needs brains? They never did a girl any good,” a subtle nod to Mulligan’s role of Daisy in The Great Gatsby (2013), in which her character says, “That’s the best thing a girl in this world can be, a beautiful little fool.”
This Promising Young Woman–Gatsby crossover is beyond clever, as both storylines explore women bounded by the social constructs that take away their voices—one due to the misuse of power and sexual conquest, and the other due to the inability to become wealthy without marriage to an affluent husband.
Kick-starting the film’s dramatic climax, Cassie blazes down the path to ultimate revenge to the tune of Archimia’s violent string rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” This scene hits home the toxicity of the judicial system and her desire to take matters into her own latex-gloved hands.
Ploughing through her targets in spectacular fashion, Fennell holds a mirror to our society. By having viewers acknowledge the pervasiveness of rape culture, Fennel hopes to construct new endings for women who are survivors of rape and vilify their offenders. While her film leaves its audience wondering if the protagonist has won or lost, it doesn’t quite matter as the finale soars above expectations and lets survivors write the end to their narrative.