Three men spot a drunk woman in a bar. After being dared by his friends, one of the men attempts to socialize with the woman with limited success. Realizing her complete lack of lucidity, the man offers to accompany her home. However, the man instead takes advantage of the situation and arranges for the driver to escort them to his own house. There, he invites the woman for drinks before proceeding to strip the woman. The man is caught flatfooted when he learns the woman was merely pretending to be drunk. When she arrives home, she draws a tally mark in a secret journal.
The protagonist of this story is a woman by the name of Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas. She is the promising young woman to whom the title of this film refers, although a key aspect of her character is that said description exists only in the past tense. Cassie was a promising young woman attempting to get a medical degree. Fate intervened, however, when fellow classmate Al Monroe raped her best friend, Nina Fisher. Despite the overwhelming evidence stacked against Al, no investigation was ever carried out, and Nina committed suicide shortly thereafter. Despondent over the loss of her friend, Cassie dropped out of college and has been living with her parents ever since, making ends meet at a local coffee shop.
During her barhopping journeys, she targets a very specific set of people – the so-called “Nice Guys”. These “Nice Guys” touted themselves as preferable alternatives to the macho, overcompensatingly masculine meatheads who stuff nerds into lockers and treat their girlfriends as objects. In practice, these “Nice Guys” were every bit as misogynistic as the stereotypical jocks they held in contempt. In fact, one could make the argument they were worse when considering their extreme dishonesty and lack of self-awareness, which, in turn, formed the playbook of pick-up artists and incels everywhere.
Cassie’s schtick cuts right through the deception and calls out these “Nice Guys” for what they are. Every so often, she goes to a bar and acts drunk whereupon she is invariably picked up by a “Nice Guy” who isn’t interested in a meaningful relationship outside of satiating a shallow, carnal lust. It’s especially humiliating for the “Nice Guy” when he realizes he doesn’t even know her name, let alone her hobbies and interests.
However, it ultimately turns out that Cassie’s bar escapades are a mere prelude to her master plan. Al Monroe’s crime could be considered an allusion to the infamous People v. Turner case of 2016 wherein an affluent college student by the name of Brock Turner raped a young woman while the latter was unconscious. Unlike Al, Brock was found guilty and forced to register as a sex offender. That being said, stories such as Nina’s are not outside the realm of possibility, and the Me Too movement was partially effected entirely because of people like Brock Turner. Indeed, there is an extra layer of tragedy in how the Me Too movement began between when Al would have committed his crime had it occurred in real life and the year in which the film is presently set. Had the crime been committed just a few years later, Al Monroe would deservedly have been labeled a pariah for the rest of his life.
As such, while Cassie’s systematic takedown of “Nice Guys” certainly makes for an interesting premise, what she actually wants is to wreak vengeance on those who caused Nina to take her own life. Her first mark is Madison McPhee, Al Monroe‘s fiancé. Madison is under the belief that Al’s rape of Nina was the latter’s fault. In response, Cassie invites Madison for a drink until she is barely coherent. At this point, Cassie hires a man to escort her to a hotel room.
Shortly thereafter, Cassie then lures the teenage daughter of Elizabeth Walker, the dean of the medical school, into her car by pretending to be a makeup artist. Cassie then arranges a meeting with Walker. The dean had dismissed Nina’s rape due to a lack of evidence – this despite there being multiple eyewitnesses to the crime. Cassie then implies that she had dropped Amber off at a dorm room with several drunk, male students. The normally calm, composed dean begins breaking down, demanding Cassie to stop her plan.
These two events perfectly capture the sheer frustration felt by women who have ever faced sexual harassment on college campuses. Indeed, while the film is highly critical of the toxic masculinity that would lead Al Monroe to take advantage of Nina’s inebriation, what makes it effective is its willingness to call out female participants in this system. The attitudes of Madison and Walker are typical of the mindset of a typical woman within this rape culture. It’s not the man’s fault for raping a drunk woman; it’s the woman’s fault for lacking common sense. If she raises an objection or commits suicide, then too bad. Walker’s attitude in particular is of the selfish, “screw you, got mine” variety wherein she acts impersonal – practically robotic – when dismissing Cassie’s claims only to have a conniption when she thinks her daughter may suffer the same fate as Nina. It reminds the audience that women are every bit as capable as men of being misogynistic.
Cassie’s confrontation with Walker marks a significant turning point for the narrative as well. The viewer may be led to believe she is a serial killer based off of the opening, in which she walks away from the apartment with what looks like blood on her hands. From there, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assume she paid a man to rape Madison while the latter was in a drunken stupor or that she did indeed subject Walker’s daughter to a similar fate. However, it’s eventually revealed Cassie is much nicer than her acerbic personality would suggest. She merely scared the two men who led her home and nothing bad happened to Madison or Walker’s daughter. The man simply made sure Madison was alright and Cassie led Walker’s daughter to a diner.
Actually, when considering Cassie’s systematic takedown of “Nice Guys”, it’s highly appropriate that she would represent their exact opposite. If anyone had heard of these “Nice Guys”, they would hold out hope that maybe, just maybe, the one they just met is the genuine article. Then, when it turns out their kindness is a façade, that person would kick themselves for ever having faith in them. This is demonstrated in a budding romance between Cassie and former classmate Ryan Cooper. While he does seem affable at first, Cassie later learns he watched Al rape Nina. In how this subplot pans out, the audience goes through that exact, same process.
Conversely, it wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch to consider Cassie an outright villain protagonist, crossing a serious moral line when she leads Walker’s daughter astray. Had she actually done that, her character would’ve been rendered permanently unsympathetic. Fortunately, Emerald Fennell clearly knew what she was doing when writing the script, and used this moment to reveal that Cassie isn’t nearly as bad as she seems.
This side of her is further expounded upon when she meets Jordan Green, the lawyer who represented Al Monroe and pressured Nina into dropping her charges. In a stark contrast to how most attorneys are portrayed in Western fiction, Cassie learns that Jordan had a psychotic breakdown, feeling immense guilt for what he did seven years ago. This isn’t a deception, either; his guilt is absolutely genuine. Cassie is taken aback, but forgives Jordan. Pointedly, she had hired a thug to do something to the lawyer, but even after calling off the plan, she pays him for his troubles.
In the final act, Cassie, having been jilted by Ryan’s betrayal, is even more focused on taking down Al. She arrives at Al’s bachelor party, posing as a stripper. He then proceeds to take Al upstairs. Once in the cabin’s bedroom, she handcuffs Al to the bed and reveals her identity. She intends to carve “Nina” into his abdomen, but he breaks free and smothers Cassie to death. The next morning, a friend of Al’s helps him dispose of the body. Things appear to be lost when Ryan covers for Al. Fortunately, it turns out Cassie planned for this possibility as well. She released the video of Al raping Nina to the public and, thanks to various clues she left behind, he is arrested for murder. The lives of everyone involved are consequently ruined in light of this new evidence. As a fitting coda, she taunts him in a series of scheduled texts, getting the last laugh from beyond the grave.
Once all is said and done, you begin to realize just what makes this film work so well. Carey Mulligan’s performance as Cassie exudes the kind of iconoclastic charisma one would find in protagonists of classic French New Wave films, and it is an absolute treat to watch her plan unfold. She never lost control of this situation for a second. Al’s fate was sealed the exact second Cassie decided to take him down. Ms. Fennell originally wanted Al to get away with murder, but financers felt it to be overly bleak. I find the financiers made the correct choice because this ending reinforces the strengths of Cassie’s character. It just wouldn’t have made any sense for such a meticulous person to not account for this possibility. Plus, it reinforces the idea that while people like Al may succeed in the short term, in the long run, they tend to paint themselves into a corner. It’s a fitting way to cap off an experience that keeps you guessing every step of the way.
In many ways, Promising Young Woman is the feminist answer to Jordan Peele’s own stellar debut Get Out. Both are efforts from talented writer-directors who, being a part of the relevant group, successfully used their unique perspectives to craft black comedies that call out significant problems in contemporary Western society. Much like how Get Out sought to deconstruct the inherent hypocrisy of those who claim to be dyed-in-the-wool liberals only to perpetuate a culture of racism so they can directly benefit from the disparity, Promising Young Woman targets “Nice Guys” and the group participation that they use to shame and bully women into silence.
Despite its heavy subject matter, Promising Young Woman absolutely succeeds as both a comedy and a drama with leading actress Carey Mulligan effortlessly commanding every scene she is in. One minute you’ll laugh at her audacious plans and the next, you’ll feel for her highly sympathetic plight. Through the trials and tribulations of her protagonist, Ms. Fennell delivers important message in a frank, down-to-Earth manner that is instantly relatable. For striking such a great balance between these moving parts, Promising Young Woman stands out as one of the stronger efforts from 2020. It’s an engaging film that will have you hooked if you give it the time of day.
Final Score: 7/10