Promising Young Woman (2020)

Dir. Emerald Fennell. Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox

Rape, not seen despite the fact that multiple characters see and hear the video evidence. Suicide, not seen. Unwanted vaginal penetration, not seen because the shot cuts off the actors below the waist. Murder, seen without having to watch the light go out of anyone’s eyes thanks to a pillow. Disposal of the body by fire, limited to a hand seen between some logs. Mental trauma we have plenty of in this movie. Cassie (Mulligan) has not recovered from the crime which was committed against her friend Nina, nor has she recovered from the world’s indifference to that crime, nor has she recovered from Nina’s own inability to recover. Nina committed suicide some number of years earlier. Since then, Cassie has been doing a mélange of performance art and PSA in which she pretends to be very drunk at some local bar or club, gets a guy to take her home, unmasks her sobriety and his venality, and, as far as I understand, leaves having given the fellow a good scare. We don’t see Cassie doing this all that often, really; the movie starts this way so Mulligan can level Adam Brody offscreen, and then we see Christopher Mintz-Plasse learn a lesson, and there’s a moment where Sam Richardson almost gets hooked but for the intercession of an Irony Angel. Only a notebook sealed with a scrunchie and filling up with tally marks give us the sense of how long this has been going on, or how much effort Cassie has spent trying to personally keep the tide from coming in. 

Throw in the occasional snap of the bubblegum cinematography, a series of Instagrammable locations, and the relentlessness of the pop music, and this movie’s mixed drink ends up drowning the Jack with Coke. There’s a lot of bad in this community. (They don’t name the place, because that would detract mightily from the “it could happen to you” business this film really nuzzles against, but I did find myself wondering how long it would take for Cassie to do this before the regular clientele, let alone the staff, of these bars would notice.) The bad is enough to kill one promising young woman and total another. Heaven forbid you feel uncomfortable while you’re learning about it, though. I’m not a voyeur, nor do I like watching scenes of sexual assault or worse.This is a movie that left me surprisingly unmoved—more confused than stricken—and the reason I found myself watching the strings on the marionettes rather than being taken by the movement is because the suffering in this movie is limited to stagey emoting. Fennell has designed her film for triumph, not power. It’s not aiming to floor you so much as it’s aiming a series of mic drops that would get more retweets than quote tweets.

That triumph Fennell has in mind is met most frequently in treppenwitz dialogue and situations – you know, the German word for “I came up with this scathing rejoinder thirty minutes after I logged off Twitter.” I watched a season of Friday Night Lights about a decade ago and was a little shocked at how often Coach Taylor would blow off something wise Tami said, but I don’t think Jason Katims could have done Connie Britton dirtier than Fennell does her if he got to do twenty seasons of FNL. Playing the dean of the med school where Nina and Cassie used to go, this short film lodged in the film’s craw is the story of Cassie excoriating Dean Walker for failing to investigate, for giving the rapist the benefit of the doubt. She feeds the dean a story about having dropped off her daughter, Amber (Francisca Estevez) with some drunk guys from a band the girl likes, and then tosses her the girl’s cell phone to amplify the dean’s helplessness. Amber is not actually in any danger, but the dean doesn’t know that, and neither do we. Eventually Cassie reveals all, and having made her point (“I guess it feels different when it’s someone you love”) she leaves. Cassie does something similar to a former classmate, Madison (Alison Brie), who expressed some ambivalence about the tragedy of Nina’s case because of how drunk she was; she gets Madison drunk and lets her believe that she might have been raped by a stranger, who Cassie has paid off to essentially plant that fiction in Madison’s head. Think twice about judging, lest ye be hoodwinked by an avenger in floral prints. The film only has that one move, that almost comical adaptation of “Better believe in ghost stories, Miss Turner: you’re in one!” 

Now, everyone in this movie, including Cassie, recognizes that the grief she’s carrying has severely damaged her. Her boss at work, Gail (Cox), wants her to stop working at this poncy little coffee shop and fulfill her potential. Her parents keep sending her messages about moving out and getting to the next thing. (In a movie where every man is either on a continuum from “actively keeping rape culture alive with his bare hands” and “this close to throttling himself with his bare hands because of what he did to keep rape culture alive,” Clancy Brown’s Stanley is a surprisingly sedate figure who the movie doesn’t ask us to judge. I wish I had any idea why that was the case.) Nina’s mother (Molly Shannon) shows up in a scene a little more than halfway through the movie. I rented this from Amazon, and I don’t know if anyone else had this problem where you could see a big staple in the upper left-hand corner of the frame when Shannon was there, or if it was a problem with my system. Anyway, even Nina’s mom tells Cassie to move on. Cassie herself, once she’s been dating Ryan (Burnham) for a little while, starts to think that she could find herself in a relationship that’s more fulfilling than her need for revenge. This is an unusual revenge story, for the injustice has not been done directly to Cassie, and because Cassie was not related to Nina nor, to our knowledge, was she romantically involved with her. It is already out on a limb, needing us to believe in undying vigor of Cassie’s righteous wrath without giving us a slightly easier way into understanding that all-consuming rage. With a family member or lover, I think it’d be easier for us to reconcile this as her fight; no matter how close Nina was to Cassie (not that we ever see it beyond childhood photos and a necklace), it still feels like that fight really belongs primarily to Mrs. Fisher. All this is to say that despite the fact that everyone in the film thinks Cassie should spend more time with a psychiatrist and less time with nascent rapists, the film still wants us to glory just as she does in being a rapist-prover. In other words, Cassie the thirty-year-old person doesn’t matter as long as Cassie the vigilante is on the job, and that’s a difficult enough line to walk for a Callie Khouri or Joan Harrison, let alone Emerald Fennell.

As I write this, it’s a week since Easter, and that was the last time I came across a story that was as desperate to kill off its protagonist for righteousness’ sake as Promising Young Woman is. In the end, Cassie is murdered by Al (Chris Lowell), who raped Nina all those years ago and is now hours away from getting married. He smothers her with a pillow just when she was about to slice Nina’s name into his body, which is the kind of flourish I found significantly more potent in Rooney Mara’s hands than Mulligan’s. However, the police show up at Al’s wedding reception and arrest him for Cassie’s murder; she’s left word with a contrite lawyer (Alfred Molina) to contact the police in the case of her disappearance. Presumably someone will also have the video of Al raping Nina in front of a crowd on tap for the jury as well. Finally reunited with the object of her obsession, Cassie has basically ensured justice for both of them. I’ll grant that the need for characters to “act logically” is a poison in the discourse, and that’s not really what I’m bothered by here. In fact, given how radically Cassie acts during the movie, it makes sense to me that she would not simply be satisfied with giving Al to the law for a years-old crime and only to get the Kavanaugh kid gloves from a misogynistic jury of his peers. But why Cassie would want to die is an altogether different matter, and there is no Gethsemane in Promising Young Woman to eavesdrop from.

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