By Maddy Raven, Film & TV Editor
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS REVIEW AND FILM CONTAIN DISCUSSIONS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT.
What is probably most striking about Promising Young Woman (2021) is how pathetic it makes men look.
It’s not as if they have to try hard – but watching 6’5” Bo Burnham crumple into himself under the steely gaze of Carey Mulligan made my week, maybe my month.
It is unclear whether or not Cassie, played by Mulligan, ever actually kills any of the men in her little blue notebook. She tallies them off and keeps a list of their names, and while we could infer that the red and blue ink might be a colour code, and at one point, she does walk down the street splattered with what at first, looks like blood, but reveals itself to be ketchup from a hot dog, it’s not about murder. Dead men can’t learn the lesson that Cassie is so willing to teach – instead, she scares the absolute s**** out of them.
The lesson Cassie teaches seems simple enough: it’s like sex education for fully grown adults. Intoxicated women cannot consent. It doesn’t matter if she seems like she’s having an amazing time. A woman slurring her words and unable to walk is not an invitation. Though she does get to throw fun bonus lessons in there, like “you don’t have a connection with this woman, she’s just sat and listened to you talk about yourself for half an hour and you don’t even know her name”.
And she is terrifying. Dressed in beautiful pastel pinks and baby blues, Cassie’s razor-sharp intelligence and standoffishness are, perhaps, at odds with her style, but the last thing I’d want to do to a woman as formidable as her is put her in a box.
Promising Young Woman chronicles Cassie’s mission to avenge her best friend, Nina. Nina never appears on screen, and Mulligan displays how empty the departure of her best friend has left her superbly. No one is safe from Cassie’s watchful gaze. Throughout the film, the events that led Cassie down this path become clear – Nina is dead, after suffering the trauma from having been assaulted at a party while the two women were at medical school together. Cassie feels a degree of responsibility, having decided to not attend that particular party.
In fact, so devoted is Cassie to Nina that they drop out of medical school together, and as such, they both disappear from the collective memory of the institution. When Cassie confronts the dean of the university, years later, she is bone chillingly calm. She is both surprised, and not surprised, that the dean has forgotten who Nina was. Even worse, Nina’s rapist has recently been back for a talk, and the dean sings his praises.
When Nina is gone, something inside Cassie is markedly missing – perhaps, it’s empathy for the people she punishes, but it’s pretty hard to feel sorry for them when they’re stripped bare by her crusade of revenge.
It could be argued that in order to do what she does, Cassie lumps all men into one category: the creepy scumbag category. But, in fact, there are wild differences between the men she entraps in this film. There’s the nice guy, who at first, seems like he’s going to help a seemingly drunk Cassie home, and then coerces her into coming home with him for a drink, and there’s the guy who wears a ridiculous trilby and doesn’t hide his oafishness from the start. Cassie’s various costumes reflect this: she becomes a reflection of what each man may want, using her physical appearance to lure in today’s victim.
Viewing all men as a threat is actually Cassie’s greatest strength. This is not a film that makes you hate men, or, in some cases, want to believe that they’re not all bad. It’s like getting The Ick for literally every man on the planet, at the same time.
As Cassie ticks people off her little blue notebook of revenge – her friend Madison, who stood by and let the assault happen, the dean, the lawyer who threatened Nina – this film shows the depth and severity of rape culture in Western society. My first instinct was to mourn for Cassie and Nina: one clearly long gone, and an incredible mind lost to the world forever, and the other just as brilliant, but hollowed out. But this belies the incredible strength that Cassie shows, and it is this that helps her to come out on top.
I must also praise this film for handling the act of assault very delicately. It is not gratuitous, and Cassie’s methods are in psychological warfare more than physical violence, but this makes her all the more terrifying. Promising Young Woman offers an alternative perspective on the rape-revenge genre, and dispenses with overt violence to reveal the true horror beneath.
Featured: Focus Features
Will you be watching Promising Young Woman?