[Note: Spoilers ahead.]
I sit staring at my laptop, and let my eyes go out of focus. I have just received a message from a dear friend. By message, I mean an apology about never believing that I was raped. I read phrases like “I can’t believe I did this to you” and “I should have listened” and “I shouldn’t have taken his side,” all focused on how they felt. I’m put into the position of needing to comfort them, falsely letting them know all is forgiven. My heart stops, my vision blurs. I lose sensation in my fingers. I don’t know what to say. So all I do is cry.
This is just one of the memories that came flooding back to me as I watched Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, “Promising Young Woman.” The movie transported me to some of the worst moments of my life when I tried to pick up the pieces after my abuser, and ex-boyfriend, turned my friends against me as I accused him of rape. I saw myself in a victim named Nina, despite the fact that she’s never shown in the film. And in Cassie, Nina’s friend and the film’s main character, I saw my friend who so desperately needed my forgiveness. “Promising Young Woman” left this sexual assault survivor feeling empty and hopeless, as if I would never be whole again.
Much of the film speaks truth to what it means to be a survivor of sexual assault and the lack of punishment for abusers; Fennell does not hold back in her critique of rape culture and how it permeates every inch of society. Yet “Promising Young Woman” hits two major stumbling blocks in its desire to interrogate justice and create an empowering narrative: its portrayal of Cassie and Nina’s relationship, and its jaw-dropping ending.
Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who spends her days slinging coffee and her nights pretending to be drunk in order to lure men into taking advantage of her and then showing them their true colors. Cassie is on a mission to avenge her best friend, Nina, who was raped and subsequently committed suicide seven years ago. A man ruined Nina’s life and wasn’t punished because he was deemed a promising young man. Since those in power wouldn’t deliver justice, Cassie takes it upon herself to punish those responsible.
“Promising Young Woman” is steeped in a neon pink high-femme aesthetic not unlike what’s seen in Coralie Fargeat’s rape-revenge film “Revenge” (2017). But unlike Fargeat, Fennell has this imagery persist throughout, painting a bright picture of a woman scorned who weaponizes her femininity instead of shedding it. The pigtails and pink that make women seem vulnerable is worn like armor, a reminder that nothing here is what it seems.
Every move Cassie makes is in memory of Nina. Every punishment is enacted because of Nina. Everything is about Nina. But Nina’s voice is never heard. She’s a ghost, silently floating at the periphery, talked about, not to. Yes, this is a film about Cassie’s grieving process, but that comes at the price of a sexual assault survivor being stripped of her personhood. There is a statement to be made about how that was already done by the entire patriarchal system; no one remembers her name, a man was prioritized over her well-being, the list goes on. But without any further introspection from the film about that idea, the construction of Nina becomes flimsy. She becomes an idea that Cassie has based her entire identity around rather than a full human being.
Even Nina’s mother (Molly Shannon) tells Cassie to move on “for all of us,” which can be interpreted for both the living and the dead. While Cassie’s grief shouldn’t be dismissed, it should be examined as something harmful to the sexual assault victim herself. “Promising Young Woman” doesn’t grapple with the ramifications of Cassie deeming herself the avenging angel without Nina’s explicit consent, and in fact doesn’t even consider the concept of consent outside of the world of sex. With Nina disappearing into the narrative, Cassie centers Nina’s trauma on herself and how she has dealt with not only Nina’s death, but her rape. In turn, this is a violation of their friendship as Cassie claims to be acting for Nina when she is really acting for herself. Nina has no say in if this is what she wants and her agency is again stripped away. It is by no means as egregious as rape, but still deserves to be discussed, especially as “Promising Young Woman” works to address the slippery slope of revenge.
A film that does question what it means to declare oneself an avenging angel is Natalia Leite’s 2017 film “M.F.A.” After Leite’s protagonist Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) kills her rapist, she decides to kill her best friend Skye’s rapist as well, similar to Cassie assuming responsibility for revenge against Nina’s rapist. Not because Skye (writer Leah McKendrick) asked, but because Noelle simply assumes that’s what Skye would want, again like Cassie. But after his death, Noelle realizes such an assumption has done more harm than good. Skye is now being questioned about his death which is triggering her memories of hopelessness and fear. This flood of memory pushes Skye to suicide, with Noelle then discovering her body. In that moment, Noelle faces the consequences of assuming justice means the same thing for every rape survivor; not every survivor wants to kill their rapist.
There is a very clear and direct recognition here of how Noelle’s actions impact other survivors. Yet in “Promising Young Woman,” while Cassie does suffer consequences for her actions, there is no dialogue about the specific consequences of assuming what Nina wants. Leite grapples with proclaiming oneself an avenging angel and what it means to take someone else’s revenge into your own hands, but Fennell skirts over such issues to make Cassie seem like Nina’s hero.
Midway through “Promising Young Woman,” Cassie begins to move on. She realizes how she has let this tragedy consume her and that she needs to move on with her life. But, just as she’s starting over, trauma comes back to consume her when she learns about a bachelor party being thrown for Al (Chris Lowell), Nina’s rapist. Cassie’s plan: dress up as a sexy nurse, infiltrate the party, and enact justice on the source of her and Nina’s pain. This dangerous act leads to her death at the hands of Al. Her body is set ablaze and Cassie is reduced to nothing but ash. There is no moment of catharsis or empowerment. It is just a bleak reminder that even the ultimate self-sacrifice does not guarantee justice.
This ending, which has become the focus of conversation around “Promising Young Woman,” left a nasty taste in my mouth that too closely reminds me of the hopelessness I deal with everyday in the wake of my trauma. Cassie’s death is a punch to the gut that says there is no hope for survivors. This plot point does highlight the bleak and disturbing reality in which survivors are mocked and abusers continue to live normal lives with no consequences. But it’s Cassie’s last words that skew this reality and fail to candy coat tragedy into something empowering.
In anticipation of her own death, Cassie schedules several texts to be sent to her ex-boyfriend, Ryan (Bo Burnham), explaining the situation and who is responsible for her death. In line with the film’s cutesy and high-femme aesthetic, she ends her final words with a winky face. Those two punctuation marks try to make her murder a moment of autonomy. Yes, she was brutally murdered, but she anticipated it so therefore she was in control, right? However: even if she was empowered in sending that text, she’s still dead. Two women had to die for a man just to get arrested. It hits too close to home and Fennell tries too hard to make it funny for it to mean anything.
Rape-revenge films are known for their moments of catharsis, releases of violent energy that feel emotional exorcisms (as seen in films such as “I Spit On Your Grave” , “Ms. 45” , and “Holiday”  as well as the aforementioned “Revenge” and “MFA.”) Their climactic moments involve screaming, bloody messes, and the desire to slump over in relief. The woman achieves vengeance, and she will live to see another day. But “Promising Young Woman” doesn’t provide that catharsis, even if Cassie’s last words seem to connote some sort of release. Instead, the woman is murdered at the hands of men and all of the frustration that has been building since the film’s beginning just sits in the viewer’s chest like an agonizing gas bubble.
In subverting that need for catharsis, Fennell does express how for those who experience sexual assault outside of the cinematic world, there’s no fantasy or escape. But with that subversion Fennell tells a very different story than intended. Fennell undermines any semblance of empowerment she built up for Cassie by brutally murdering her. All the film does is remind the audience that women’s trauma is nothing and that trying to heal from trauma can only end with death and a winky face.
I don’t want to smile and cheer for Cassie. I want to lay on the floor and cry as I remember that I mean nothing in the eyes of my abuser and his friends. I am as insignificant as Cassie’s ashes blowing in the wind. The feeling that there is no hope for a new beginning, no way for me to move on from my trauma. All that lies ahead is suffering.
But I don’t want to live a life like that. I want to flaunt my success in the face of my rapist and live my life to the fullest. I want to feel as if I can accomplish that somehow.
A tale about a woman fighting for justice after her best friend’s assault sounds like the middle finger to the patriarchy that audiences want and crave. But in execution, Fennell only undercuts her own desired message of empowerment both through Cassie’s death and her friendship with Nina. And while she spits quite a bit of truth about rape culture, Fennell fails to interrogate the deeper issues of what it means to portray a woman taking revenge for a sexual assault survivor and in turn what it means to have her brutally murdered. In the context of “Promising Young Woman,” Cassie’s death is a hollow exhibit, a moment played primarily for shock value. The message feels like one big shrug, displaying that searching for empowerment is useless, the system is in fact broken, and there’s not much to do about it. There is no glimmer of hope or meditation on consequences for your actions. It is merely a tragedy punctuated with two keystrokes on a glowing screen.