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The Systematic Revenge of A Promising Young Woman

By: Faith Brammer

A Promising Young Woman is a searing revenge thriller disguised as a dark comedy that attacks rape culture.

Set against a backdrop of pastel hues, this dark film follows 30-year-old med school dropout turned barista Cassie (Carey Mulligan) whose life was forever changed when her best friend Nina was raped in college. The assault was written off by the administration and Nina was forced to watch the man who assaulted her walk away free of consequences, all while shamed for being intoxicated the night it happened. After years of emotional distress, Nina takes her own life--leaving Cassie full of righteous anger. In an attempt to cope with her grief and seek retribution, Cassie develops a systematic form of revenge. She’ll go to a nightclub alone and act like she’s too drunk to stand, draping herself over a chair and slurring her speech, waiting for a nice guy to come along and help her out. They always do. Cassie maintains her illusion of drunkenness while the guy in question “helps her out,” bringing her back to his place to spend the night while she’s clearly in an intoxicated, non-consensual state. When he inevitably attempts to take advantage of her, she snaps into her stone-cold sober state, while the nice guy sputters an attempt at an answer for her question, “What are you doing?” Provocative and unsettling, the film challenges the toxic culture that too often allows men to walk away from an assault without being held accountable.

When talking about her concept for the film with IndieWire, writer-director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve, The Crown, Call the Midwife) wanted to create a meticulous narrative that centered around “the way that rage and anger manifests itself, particularly in women when we don’t traditionally, in spite of what most revenge movies tell us, resort to violence... It was looking at the different ways in which women act on those feelings, if they do… And it was pretty hot on the heels of it becoming a much bigger, more global conversation.” The film doesn’t dive into a realistic look at the trauma that survivors suffer, but it fully encapsulates the fury that fuels movements like #METOO.

In an interview with The New York Times, Fennell stated that she wanted to steer away from the Hollywood stereotype of female vengeance, which so often involves “a woman walking down the street in slow-mo with a fire burning behind her.” Cassie resorts to any means to achieve the reckoning she desires. She’s not a pure of heart heroine. She’s shrewd, biting, blunt, and achingly relatable. Yet, she’s still a sympathetic character. She’s tired and she’s angry--why protect promising young men at the expense of promising young women? In Cassie, the audience can see the fire of a conversation that’s long overdue, the embers of stories that deserve to be told. Even in all her frenzies, they want her to win.

When Cassie eventually confronts Nina’s rapist, he argues that they were just kids when it happened, explaining that “getting accused like that is every guy’s worst nightmare” to which Cassie replies “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” As heavy as the subject matter of the film is, it’s still fun and entertaining. The film’s brassy heroine manifests the same sort of fear and discomfort within men that those same men often create within women-- there’s a certain level of satisfaction seeing that play out on screen. Cassie’s endeavors can feel absurd and unrealistic at times but in all their outlandishness, they exemplify the raw desires of what many wronged women wish they could do. Cassie is female rage and exhaustion. The direction of the rape-revenge tale feels straightforward, headed towards long-deserved justice. It feels almost predictable until a discomposing plot twist turns the film from a rape-revenge thriller to reality.

Since its Sundance Film Festival release in January of 2020, followed by a theatrical release on Christmas Day of 2020, A Promising Young Woman has been recognized as one of the most important films of the year and was nominated for five Oscars. When talking to Deadline about the film’s nominations, Carey Mulligan, who plays Cassie, stated that “What we’ve heard from women so much in the past few days is how they’ve had to adapt, just for being women. ‘I walk home carrying my keys,’ or ‘I change my shoes before I leave the office so that I can run.’ All of the ways we have all grown up accepting something that is unacceptable.”

Fennell proclaims that “Suddenly it feels like people are listening for the first time. It feels like people are receptive to the conversation. I’m incredibly upset, as everyone is, with what’s going on. And if any of us can contribute to that conversation, if any of us can make it easier to have this kind of talk, then that’s incredible.” When asked about her intent for the film, Fennell says that she wanted to start a discussion about the vulnerability of women. She says, “it’s a conversation that feels kind of ever-changing and alive, but the truth of it is—and this is what I was trying to explain—is that we are vulnerable by existing. We are vulnerable by sitting. We are vulnerable by having hair. We are vulnerable by having hands and skin and wearing trousers or a skirt or a bikini or, you know, anything. Women exist at the mercy, really, of the men in the room.”

Fennell intentionally shied away from traditional horror conventions, turning towards something more decadent and energetic as the backdrop for a serious conversation. In an interview with Roger Ebert she explained that “I think pleasure and enjoyment is a really important tool if you’re going to be discussing stuff that is difficult. And especially if you want to attract people who maybe haven’t thought that deeply about these things. We’re incredibly lucky, I think—those of us who think and talk about all of this stuff very openly, if we have friends who are very open about this stuff. It’s so important. But there are very many people who still haven’t been able to talk about this stuff, so if this helps them then it’s just wonderful”

Unapologetic and bold, A Promising Young Woman breaks down the barriers supporting rape culture, igniting a conversation--it’s an art as activism.

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