Promising Young Woman is a movie that is meant to get ugly. And that is evident right from the very first shot. The film tells the story of Cassandra (Cassie) played by Carey Mulligan, a young woman who adopts vigilantism to track and intimidate potential rapists by pretending to be drunk. A medical school dropout, she works at a coffee shop, denying any opportunity of getting a better job. She has no friends, her relationship with her parents seems strained, and everything has a color of meaninglessness to it. It is as if the role of the ‘huntress’ gives her a feeling of solace, which also takes the shape of an unhealthy coping mechanism.
Acting the part of an intoxicated woman, she lures all kinds of men into her trap. Once they start taking advantage of her drunkenness, she flips the switch to take on her scary, menacing persona. Once there, Cassie does not need to tell the men who they are; the same people who had always proclaimed themselves to be “woke” or the kind who won’t “do such things”, but instead waiting for a chance to abuse their male privilege, without their consent (well, obviously). They realize that they are not those good, chivalrous men. Instead, they are left with an image of their morally bankrupt, exploitative, and manipulative character.
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This is particularly striking because there is no dearth of men today playing the “nice guy” charade who feel they are entitled to a lot of things just because they are for gender equality, or are feminists. Sadly, this performative wokeness usually turns out to be nothing but a tool to gain credibility points or for women to notice them and assume safety around them. What could happen afterward is easy to assume.
The movie screams the truth about how the average woman is always at risk of being harmed, and there is a perpetual danger looming when they choose to believe someone. And then there is the classic case of victim shaming, where apparently it’s always the survivors’ fault for not dressing well enough or getting too drunk, and not the perpetrators’. The mindset that provides the accused with the benefit of the doubt for the fear of ‘ruining their lives’, the hypocrisy that takes over when a loved one is put in the same situation, using age and immaturity as a reason to justify one’s heinous actions, all are instances that the movie dissects painfully. And the aforementioned behaviors, reinforced for centuries by patriarchy, don’t discriminate when it comes to corrupting men and women alike. Take note of all these and it is not very hard to notice the undertones of the #metoo movement in the movie.
By taking every single quest of Cassie’s, the film challenges the very institution that has oppressed women for so long; it is a slap in the face of anyone who believes that the culture is the fault of a ‘few bad men’ (at least Cassie’s color-coded notebook is a testimony to this). Again, even though her modus operandi might be questionable to many, one can choose to overlook that, keeping in mind the larger purpose of her actions.
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The cast does an excellent job of executing their roles brilliantly, and Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham deserve special mention. You will find the abundance of black comedy in the movie quite refreshing from the otherwise (mostly) desolate mood of the movie too. And amidst all the chaos, the movie also offers a fresh patch that tells us that even for those who have silently enabled rape culture in some way or the other, there is still room for atonement, to regret and maybe redeem their wrongdoings.
While we see a possibility of the story transform into a romcom towards the middle of the movie, it never quite reaches there. As the movie progresses, the mood gets increasingly uncomfortable, as we see the protagonist also venture into more harmful and aggressive territories. Even though I have never been a fan of retributive justice, I found myself often rooting for Cassie during the movie. It probably has to do something with the emotional release I wanted Mulligan’s character to attain in the end, or the rage against the patriarchal system itself.
The climax of the movie was far from perfect. There is nothing special about the way things end, and one might feel very conflicted about what to feel about it. Nevertheless, the director Emerald Fennell deserves praise for the sheer courage she displayed to put it on the screen – to bring grief, pain, and vengeance into such a loud picture. What is even more important is that nowhere does the central theme of the movie feels like a mere plot device – the story does not treat the protagonist as a revenge porn machine, nor does it exploit her emotions to make the movie more appealing.
While Cassie’s actions may appear justifiable, there are places in the movie where the audience might be prompted to ask whether she is not behaving just like those who she set out seeking revenge against. Personally, there was a scene in the movie where I felt horrified as Mulligan’s character almost crossed that line.
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Of course, there are issues and in the movie that needs to be pointed out. For example, how Cassie gets away with her actions, week after week despite her not putting in much effort to conceal her identity is left unexplained, deliberately perhaps. Neither do the parts where the men always act benignly after they realize Cassie is not prey, seem plausible.
But considering it came from a debutant director and the magnitude of the subject it chose to take on, nitpicking on the shortcomings would be extremely unfair. In the end, Promising Young Woman is a story of a woman who believes she has become so damaged by the trauma of a past incident, that the only way forward is to achieve some sense of redemption, by any means necessary. And it is a stark reminder of the harm men can potentially inflict once they know that the power is with them.