Payback never looked so promising.
Promising Young Woman is a black comedy thriller film by Emerald Fennell released through Focus Features on Dec. 25. Haunted by events from her past, the film tells the story of Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a young woman who seeks revenge over the men who have caused the trauma in her life. Every week, she goes to a bar and pretends to be drunk to lure men who grab the opportunity to take advantage of her, before turning the tables on them and teaching them a lesson. After a fateful encounter with her old colleague Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham), she devises a plan to finally enact her ultimate revenge on Alexander Monroe (Christopher Lowell), the man who ruined her best friend Nina Fisher’s life.
Initially, the film leaves the audience in the dark as to Cassie’s motives, but as the story progresses, it becomes crystal clear that the film is meant to serve as an enthralling thinkpiece regarding the dynamics between the perpetrator and the victim. Despite its delayed distribution, the film was one of the most thought-provoking releases from last year. Through its thrilling and compelling story, Fennell’s empowering film sheds light on an important issue that many women today face, yet few directors dare to address in their films. It manages to spark a meaningful conversation about the trials and tribulations that women are forced to deal with in their lives that fail to be heard. Cassie serves as the physical manifestation of this desire to have a voice; she represents the pent-up anger at the men who take advantage of women, yet remain unscathed and unbothered.
Much of the film’s critical acclaim stems from its brilliant use of visuals and sound design as a means of amplifying its overarching concepts. Its bright candy-colored palette and bubblegum pop soundtrack juxtaposed with its dark themes surrounding sexual assault and consent are just some of the factors that make this film distinct from the others released last year.
One of the film’s most memorable scenes happens at the midpoint when Cassie and Ryan bond together in a pharmacy while Paris Hilton’s Stars Are Blind is playing in the background. The scene is orchestrated in a way that resembles a romantic comedy with its use of carefree music and pastel backgrounds intercut with a montage of the pair growing closer to each other. By the end of the film, the audience’s expectations are subverted and the atmosphere of the scene almost seems astonishing, as it is revealed that Ryan was a bystander who did nothing in order to stop Alexander’s offense, completely unaffected by the traumatizing event that caused Nina’s suicide. In extension, the film’s central theme is highlighted by Fennell through the dichotomy between the fate of the characters: the depraved young men continue to thrive and lead successful lives as doctors, while the promising young women are compelled to drop out of medical school and give up their hopes and dreams due to that one incident.
Furthermore, the film’s script loaded with thematic undertones was laudable. Through carefully chosen wording, Fennell incorporates particular language commonly directed towards victims of sexual assault and flips them on their heads, adding another layer of complexity to the film in delivering its message to the viewers. At the start of the film, a group of men at a bar see Cassie seemingly drunk and one of them remarks, “You know, they put themselves in danger, girls like that.” Not long after, one of the men named Jerry (Adam Brody) offers to take her home as a courteous gesture. In actuality, he takes her to his home, offers her more liquor, and attempts to sexually assault her. This scene is just one of the examples wherein Fennell uses a phrase commonly said to women and flips it on its head by making the woman have the upper hand in what is usually seen as a vulnerable position.
Although viewers were divided by the film’s ending, it serves to highlight what the victims of these crimes have to face in real life. Based on how the film was promoted before its wide release, some were hoping that Cassie would have been able to fully execute her vengeance through murder, but doing so would have merely undermined the harsh reality of the morally-split victim. However grating the ending might have been for some, by having the perpetrator suffer for his crimes through Cassie having to pay the ultimate price, it sends a message that even if the culprits are served justice, the victims can never truly recover from the traumatic events that they were subjected to. Consequently, the film’s ambiguous ending that shows Alexander’s arrest is especially significant as Fennell leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether the twisted system that once failed Cassie will finally deliver justice, ending with a powerful impression in hopes of instilling in the audience the desire to make changes in the real world.
Despite having its flaws, Promising Young Woman offers a tantalizing film experience that opens up an important conversation about a woman’s worst nightmare. Through its pretty visuals and sugary sweet soundtrack, the film accomplishes the task of placing the viewers into the victim’s shoes in hopes of allowing them to see through a different perspective—the perspective of a woman who lost everything in her life due to a man whose selfish act of lust left him unharmed and left her broken.
Promising Young Woman is currently available for rent on YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.