Cassandra is haunted by the ghosts of her past. She atones for this by going out night after night pretending to be drunk at bars, waiting for a “nice guy” to offer his help. When her past crashes into the present, Cassandra is forced to take more drastic action.
Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) does not hold back in her feature-film debut as writer and director of Promising Young Woman. To say I have been anticipating this film for over a year is an understatement. When the trailer first dropped, I was very excited to see it. The film was supposed to come out in April 2020, but unfortunately COVID delayed the release. The worst part of this delay was the radio silence. In the weeks between the March shutdown and the original April release date, there were zero updates on if/when the film would come out. It wasn’t until months later the studio finally announced the Christmas day release, but only in theaters (which I firmly believe is ridiculous when we are still in a pandemic, but I digress). Needless to say, between the delayed release and the film’s content, it has left quite the controversial impact on viewers.
At first glance, Promising Young Woman looks like a rape-revenge film, but it’s actually something quite unique. Carey Mulligan (Drive, Shame) stars as Cassandra. At night, we watch as she pretends to be completely wasted in bars only to have men, pretending they are nice and trying to help her, ultimately prove to be predatory. During the day, Cassandra is a 30-year-old woman who dropped out of medical school, lives with her parents, and works at a coffee shop. It isn’t until an old classmate of hers shows up at the shop and the two start dating that we finally learn why Cassandra dropped out of school. This alters the focus of her rage and, ultimately, the trajectory of her life.
Mulligan is absolutely phenomenal as Cassandra. She brings so many layers and depth to the character as she outwardly portrays a hardened woman, but she is truly tortured and scarred. Throughout the film, Mulligan conveys her character as almost wearing different masks depending on who she’s interacting with, yet in the moments when she’s alone she seems to be empty inside. Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade, The Big Sick) is also great as Ryan, the old classmate Cassandra ends up dating. His character is vital because he forces Cassandra to face her past, while also getting a glimpse of what her future could be if she could find a way to move on. The moments the pair are together often bring a lightness, offering fleeting breaks in the otherwise sombre film.
[WARNING: SPOILERS BEGIN HERE]
Now, I typically avoid writing spoilers in my reviews, but it’s impossible to fully discuss Promising Young Woman without diving into the final act. We watch as Cassandra disguises herself as a stripper to infiltrate the bachelor party of the man who assaulted her best friend. We are also forced to watch as, in the moment when you think she will get vengeance, instead she loses her life at this man’s hands. This scene filled me with so much rage and sadness, I wasn’t sure if I could finish the film. Then the film continues and we learn the measures Cassandra took to ensure this man goes down for her murder in the most public way possible. It’s a bittersweet moment, to say the least.
The end of Promising Young Woman has caused quite a stir and has divided audiences. I took a few weeks to really think about it before I even started writing this review, and I think I finally have collected my thoughts. This ending simultaneously infuriated me and gave me a sense of peace. In that way, I think it’s brilliant. You’re supposed to be mad that Cassandra dies. You’re supposed to be happy that her killer is finally going to jail. Fennell perfectly brings complex emotions to the surface because Cassandra’s turmoil is complex. While she was never sexually assaulted, she blames herself for not being there to save her best friend from that fate. The survivor’s guilt eats away at her for years. By the time we meet Cassandra, it seems like she will never be able to live her life the fullest because of this. For a time, we along with Cassandra believe she can turn it around when she starts dating Ryan, but that quickly turns sour. While this is likely meant to be up to the viewer to interpret, with the precautions Cassandra took, I firmly believe she went to that bachelor party intending to die. She knew she could never move on. She knew the man who raped her friend would never be brought to justice for that crime. So she took steps for him to commit a new crime, and she made sure this time he would be caught.
Cassandra’s sacrifice also brings up conflicting feelings. It’s an unfortunate trope in genre films for people with mental health issues to commit suicide as their only means of being free, rather than seeking help from a mental health professional. This aspect of Cassandra’s death is troublesome, but also not surprising. In the moment, it’s a shock to see her die, but there are visual cues hinting at her fate. Multiple times throughout the film, Cassandra is made to look like a saint, an angel, and even someone crucified on the cross. This gorgeous biblical imagery hints that, like Christ, her death is inevitable and that in death she will finally reach her salvation.
Promising Young Woman is the controversial film we need right now to start important conversations. It covers different levels of predatory behavior from men and how they often get away with it. Fennell gives the audience a bittersweet finale to show there is never a happy ending in situations like these, but it is possible for justice to prevail. The film is visually stunning, has a killer soundtrack, and has great performances. Love it or hate it, the film brings up important topics people might normally avoid. Promising Young Woman might leave you feeling enraged, but that means the film did its job.
OVERALL RATING: 9/10