Film Review: “Promising Young Woman” — Surprisingly Restrained

By Nicole Veneto

In its efforts to subvert well-known tropes and reclaim the subgenre’s feminist cultural potency, Promising Young Woman undercuts its own transgressive potential by doing away with what makes rape-revenge films compelling.

Promising Young Woman, directed by Emerald Fennell. Screening at AMC Boston.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.

One of the most anticipated films of the year, Emerald Fennell’s debut feature Promising Young Woman attempts to rework the rape-revenge subgenre for the #MeToo-era, turning it into a candy-colored, darkly comedic indictment of rape culture and the quiet complicity through which it operates. Ranging from sleazy exploitation flicks to arthouse cinema, rape-revenge films have been a pop culture target for feminist critics. The subgenre often condemns sexual violence as an egregious violation of women’s autonomy that too often goes unpunished. But it risks exploiting the act itself as a cheap cinematic spectacle, a vision of female suffering for the voyeuristic delight of audiences. Fennell is the latest female director to take on the rape-revenge narrative, preceded by Coralie Fargeat with 2017’s Revenge and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale in 2018, both of which, though helmed by women, are as viscerally violent as any of the male-directed exploitation entries of the ’70s and ’80s.

Promising Young Woman’s tone is undoubtedly angry — appropriately so for times like these. And yet it’s incredibly restrained when it comes to taking down its perpetrators. The promise of the rape-revenge film is that the victimizer(s) will get their comeuppance tenfold, that their victims will be avenged, often via a gloriously bloody odyssey of retribution. But in its efforts to subvert the well-known tropes, and reclaim the subgenre’s cultural potency for feminists, Promising Young Woman undercuts its own transgressive potential by discarding what makes rape-revenge films compelling.

Carey Mulligan, whose performance has generated awards buzz, stars as Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas, a 30-year old medical school dropout whose promising future was derailed by sexual assault—not against her, but her best friend Nina (whom we never actually get to see onscreen, to the film’s detriment). Nina committed suicide after being gang-raped at a dorm party by several “promising young men.” Now living at home and working at a hipster coffee shop, Cassie lives a seemingly withdrawn and purposeless existence, to those around her. They are unaware she’s turned her secondhand trauma into a quest for violent reprisal. In addition to plotting her own revenge against Nina’s rapists and their enablers, Cassie makes weekly visits to a local nightclub for the sole purpose of tricking and entrapping potential date-rapists. As Cassie herself describes, “every week, I go to the club. I act like I’m too drunk to stand. And every week, a ‘nice guy’ comes over to see if I’m okay.”

The film opens on one of these — presumably many, as implied by a notebook of blue and red tally-marks — excursions. Cassie, head lolling and make-up smeared, attracts the attention of a small group of stereotypically chauvinistic business bros, the seemingly “nicest” of whom (Adam Brody) takes the bait. He calls her an Uber home, accompanies her into it, and then reroutes their destination back to his apartment for “a few more drinks.” It’s only expected that he attempts to take advantage of her, and the scene plays out accordingly with quiet yet profound discomfort, implicating the audience as Peeping Toms observing what will surely end in rape. Just before it can go there, Cassie’s eyes snap to the camera’s attention, staring back at viewers with a smirk as she reiterates, fully sober and to her would-be-rapist’s horror, “I said: what are you doing?

And then, after all that deliciously cultivated tension, it cuts to black. What Cassie actually does to this would-be-rapist is never shown; after the opening title, the film then cuts to her triumphantly walking past a construction site the following morning, heels in one hand and breakfast sandwich leaking hot sauce (not blood) in the other. She is all-too-predictably catcalled by some ethnically diverse construction workers. Whatever Cassie did to her victim is left to our imagination, but based upon her subsequent excursion with McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), she likely did no more than furiously harangue him for being an opportunistic predator. Compared to Zoë Lund in Ms 45, scattering her rapist’s body parts throughout the city, or any one of Camille Keaton’s gory acts of payback in I Spit on Your Grave, Cassie’s methods are incredibly tame. Until the climax, her modus operandi is a mix of psychological suggestion and deceit. That makes for a riveting standoff between Cassie and the dean of the med school (Connie Britton), but it robs us of the visceral satisfactions of bloodier confrontations.

The film’s prevailing thesis — and Cassie’s assumption — that all men are potential rapists is soon complicated by her romantic involvement with Chris (baby-faced Bo Burnham), a member of Cassie and Nina’s cohort now working as a pediatric surgeon. Although Mulligan and Burnham are undoubtedly charming together, the romantic subplot inevitably detracts from the main story line. It brings Cassie’s quest for vengeance to a complete halt in the second act. This romantic detour provides some enjoyable character moments (including an impromptu sing-along to Paris Hilton’s “The Stars Are Blind” in a drugstore), yet I couldn’t help but wonder why depicting their relationship took precedence over the one between Cassie and Nina, whose only onscreen appearance is in a photograph of her and Cassie as teenagers.

We know Nina’s name and her tragedy, but otherwise we know practically nothing about her outside her significance to Cassie. Ironically, Nina’s as faceless to us, the viewers, as she is to her rapists and the school administration that turned a blind eye. More so than Cassie, Nina is arguably the “promising young woman” of the title. And that makes her material absence from a film in which her rape is the inciting action all the more glaring. That’s a serious problem.

In this context, the climax may leave some with a bad taste in their mouth. It’s unexpected enough to be subversive, but it’s neither as clever nor as affecting as Fennell wants it to be. Overall, Promising Young Woman is a well-made film with a strong lead performance and some finely executed tension along the way, but it hardly lives up to the advance buzz.

Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader.

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