In the trailer for Promising Young Woman, a chilling violin rendition of ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears, coupled with stills of Cassie (Carey Mulligan) smearing hot red lipstick and smashing a car, sets the stage for what we’re in for. It seems like a pulsating no-nonsense revenge saga comparable to the likes of Kill Bill. However, the very first scene of Promising Young Woman subverts our expectations when we find ourselves chuckling to slow-motion shots of men busting moves to Charli XCX’s ever catchy ‘Boys’. The first shot is a mere precedent for what is to follow. Nothing is what it seems. Underneath the veneer of an innocent and almost Barbie-esque candy-coloured palette lies a gritty narrative – an underbelly with horrid realities of a patriarchal system so incapable of seeing the truth that it would rather marinate in its own vicious ignorance.
When such a system humiliates, silences and eventually fails Nina Fisher as a victim of sexual abuse, the trauma arising from her death propels our protagonist, and Nina’s best friend, Cassie, to embark on a vigilante mission of sorts. By night, the otherwise girl-next-door medical school dropout who seems to have no direction morphs into a harsh reality check for men who seem to live in a bubble that they’re the ‘nice guy’. As Cassie herself observes, every night that she pretends to be blacked out drunk, the nice guy creature emerges from his den of chivalry, takes her home and inevitably takes advantage of her – up until the point when Cassie drops the charade and reveals that she is in fact not drunk. The chivalrous beast touching her cannot even recall her age or name. So much for being Mr Nice Guy.
The engines of the narrative however rev into their full potential when Cassie begins to act upon a more personal vendetta – directly confronting those involved in Nina’s abuse. Interestingly, it is when the film gets more personal, leading us into what exactly happened with Nina that it serves to function as a true exposé of facets of a larger society, which, out of selfishness and convenience, gives room for abusers to roam scot-free. Facing consequences for their actions is a far cry: they don’t even have to live with them. When Cassie meets those who knew about Nina, the ignorance they feign and the excuses they come up with coalesce to form a system that serves to be a soft cushion to protect pristine careers and put up an untainted front. The cost? Leaving those like Nina to be forgotten names and her loved ones marred with survivor’s guilt and haunting memories. It’s cruel and unfair. Sprinkled consistently throughout the narrative are indicators of what Nina and Cassie could have been. At the top of their class in medical school, they were promising young women in every sense of the words, now reduced to merely forgotten college gossip.
The gut-punch of the film however comes in the form of Ryan Cooper, Cassie’s love interest. Ryan can be comparable to a siren that lures us in with his charming disposition but unfortunately ends up being one of the many men Cassie knows all too well. The lovebirds jamming to Paris Hilton in a pharmacy store seems to be a montage from an early 2000s rom-com, making us believe for a split second that maybe Cassie can move on and leave her past behind. Yet, the film jarringly pulls the rug out from beneath our feet, bearing us back to the cold touch of reality when Cassie is handed a tape from the past which evidences Nina’s abuse and those involved. From this point onwards, there is no turning back. The events in the third act leave us horrified. We feel defeated, frustrated and helpless, a testament to director Emerald Fennell’s prowess to make the audience feel empathy for victims of abuse. While Fennell generously gives us a silver lining by the end, acting as a small redemption and catharsis, we are still rooted in our seats, paralysed and overwhelmed when the end credits roll.
Promising Young Woman feels like a fresh breeze. In a world where feminism has somehow garnered a bad rep and ambiguity clouds cases of abuse, Promising Young Woman serves as a fitting response to what is wrong and what needs to change. Cassie is fiercely independent, intelligent and could well be a poster child for what one could consider the modern young woman. Yet, despite her numerous attributes, the film makes us aware of the fact that the scales are not titled in her favour. In a system where walls are built relentlessly to silence victims, one cannot help but feel like a martyr walking into a fire if one were to take matters into one’s own hands. Oftentimes, films have a tendency to be akin to a public service announcement when trying to reflect social issues. Emerald Fennell however gives the narrative gusto and rhythm with thriller-like revenge-saga beats that consistently keep the audience on its toes. Unpredictable and raw, Promising Young Woman is an important and unforgettable experience that does not hold back.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.