By Harriet Gray
Promising Young Woman is a funny, angry, stylised revenge thriller. Our heroine, of sorts, is Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan): a 30-year-old medical school dropout, who lives with her parents and works in a café. Cassie has an unusual hobby. Every weekend she gets dressed up, goes to a bar or a club, and pretends to be so drunk that she can’t walk. She allows a random man to pick her up and take her back to his place. Continuing her play acting, she acts as if she is unable to function – as if she is certainly too drunk to meaningfully consent to sex. She says she feels she doesn’t feel good, or she wants to go to sleep, or she wants to go home, or she asks the guy to call her a cab. She pretends to fall asleep. The men, nevertheless, persevere, and then, out of the blue, Cassie snaps back to sober. The sudden change is unnerving. The men are, understandably, freaked out and frightened: “What are you trying to say, that I’m a predator or something?” “It’s not as rare as you think,” Cassie explains to one of them. “You know how I know? Because every week I go to a club, and every week I act like I’m too drunk to stand, and every fucking week a nice guy like you comes over to see if I’m ok.” Having thus caused her quarry to re-evaluate his status as a “nice guy,” Cassie walks away.
This ‘hobby’, we learn, which she records in a little notebook of scrawled tally counting and men’s names, is a response to the death of her best friend Nina some years before. Nina and Cassie were at medical school together, until Nina was raped by a classmate while she was too drunk to consent, many times, including in front of his friends. She ended up covered in bruises. Nina reported her rapist, but nothing was done. This had a devastating effect on Nina, eventually causing her to drop out of med school and, later, to kill herself. Cassie also dropped out to look after Nina and, after Nina died, began her mission of vengeance.
At first, Cassie’s revenge hobby is random – she waits for any old guy at whatever bar she happens to be at that night to try to take advantage of her, and away she goes. After she runs into Ryan, another old classmate from medical school who is still in touch with many of their old classmates, including Nina’s rapist Al Monroe, she begins to more specifically target those personally responsible for her friend’s pain. Madison, a female friend who failed to support Nina; Dean Walker, the female dean of the medical school who did not take Nina’s report seriously; Jordan Green, a male lawyer involved in defending Nina’s rapist (the only character who gets to be redeemed, see below); and, finally, Al Monroe himself. Her encounter with Al, when she crashes his stag do at a remote house pretending to be a stripper, ultimately costs Cassie her life. After luring Al up to the bedroom, she handcuffs him to the bed and tries to get him to admit that he raped Nina. As she attempts to carve Nina’s name into his chest (see below), he manages to break out of one of the handcuffs and, in what feels like a long, drawn out sequence, smothers Cassie to death with a pillow. Together with his best man Joe, Al later burns Cassie’s body. Initially the police are flippant: they assume that she has harmed herself, and they don’t seem particularly bothered if she has. Cassie, however, had already set into motion a neat conclusion before going to the bachelor party. She has sent a recently-unearthed video of Al raping Nina, along with the information that she would be attending Al’s bachelor party, to the reformed lawyer Jordan Green. This leads to the police finding her partially-burned body and descending on Al’s wedding to arrest him, somehow timed perfectly with scheduled text messages arriving for Ryan. Neat, satisfying… apart from the fact, of course, that Cassie is dead.
Wielding the spectre of rape
At points, Cassie’s revenge is portrayed as fun – it’s a glorious, white-hot-rage, scorched-earth fantasy; one set to a defiant, poppy, female-vocals-heavy soundtrack that includes It’s Raining men by The Weather Girls and a haunting instrumental version of Britney Speers’ Toxic, and is accented with an ice-cream pastel colour palette. Being catcalled by some builders while she walks home from a revenge night, make up smeared on her face and holding her shoes, Cassie stops to state at them. She doesn’t say or do anything, but she doesn’t play by the usual rules of this social interaction – she doesn’t hurry by, she doesn’t laugh, she doesn’t look uncomfortable or get annoyed – she just stares at them. The builders quickly become very uncomfortable with this unexpected turn of events. It’s wonderful. Later, she uses a crow bar to smash up the car of a man who shouts at her at a traffic light, set to rousing string crescendos. Cassie has zero fucks left to give. It’s awesome, it’s empowering. Fuck you, ‘nice guys,’ fuck you, catcalling builders, burn it all down Cassie you avenging angel. We know, of course, that Cassie’s hobby, even while it’s going well, is not exactly healthy. The little notebook with its long list of names reminds us that nothing she does will ever be enough to soothe her demons. She is sour, she is isolated, lives with her parents in a claustrophobically, fussily decorated house; she is not an aspirational character. We know this. But there are parts of the film in which it is satisfying to imagine, just for a second, how cathartic it would feel to release a tsunami of rage over the world of rape culture and burn the whole fucking thing down.
At other moments, however, watching Cassie’s revenge spree is less than cathartic: in particular when she use rape – or, more accurately, the idea of rape, the fear of rape – as a weapon to enact revenge on women who failed to advocate for Nina in the aftermath of her assault. Cassie targets Madison, an old friend of hers and Nina’s from medical school who turned against Nina after she was raped. Cassie gets Madison “blackout drunk” and conspires with a man to make her believe that she might have been raped in a hotel room but can’t remember it. After the event Madison calls her, repeatedly, becoming increasingly distressed, but Cassie does not answer the calls. Later, she targets Dean Walker, the dean of the medical school that she and Cassie attended together, who had failed to act when Nina reported the rape to her. She convinces the dean that she has kidnapped her teenage daughter and delivered her to the dorm room in which Nina was raped, and left her with the college boys there, along with a bottle of vodka. These encounters are troubling to watch. The hot pink shine of Cassie’s glorious and righteous take-downs of random men in bars – where all she essentially had to do was hold up a mirror and let them see themselves – has come off; and now she is using the fear of rape as a weapon against other women. Rape to avenge rape. This highlights the heteronormative character of the rape risk that animates Cassie’s world – all men are potential rapists (see below), all women are (always?) at risk of rape. To shake up men by making them think that they might potentially be rapists is one thing; to shake up women by making them think that they/someone they love might potentially be victims feels different. Perhaps this is because so many women’s daily lives are already shaped by the fear of rape.
While Cassie and her revenge project are far from simple or perfect, then, the film does take a rather clear, simple aim at its key target: the figure of the ‘nice guy.’ The ‘nice guy’ is thoroughly eviscerated. As in, the film doesn’t just throw the concept of the nice guy in the bin; it chews it up into little pieces, spits it out, grinds it under its heels, and then sets it on fire. Emerald Fennell, the director, has spoken of deliberately casting actors in her ‘nice-guy’-abuser roles who are usually seen in romantic comedies, rather than actors who we associate with playing baddies. The message of this, it seems, is: OK, sure, not all men, but potentially any men, and how can we know in advance which ones? Even Al Monroe, who we know way before we meet him to be a rapist, describes himself as “a gentleman,” and says, respectfully, that, out of love and consideration for his fiancé, he doesn’t want a stripper at his stag do.
A couple of times, we are offered hope that the ‘nice guy’ might save the day. In the opening scene, Jerry (played by Adam Brody) stands in a bar calling out his (male) friends/co-workers for the way that they are talking about a woman they work with. The woman, we come to understand, is causing trouble by complaining that work meetings are being held at a golf club that doesn’t let women play. Jerry calls them out, takes a stand; the long-suffering defender of women’s rights standing up for the revolutionary idea that it’s probably best not to hold business meetings in a strip club. Their attention swiftly turns to Cassie, in character as an extremely drunk woman, collapsing against the wall. “That is just asking for it.” “Jesus, would you look at that, you should get some dignity sweetheart.” “You know, they put themselves in danger, girls like that.” “If she’s not careful somebody’s going to take advantage.” They wonder where her friends are, criticising them for “Leaving her laying around for anyone to pick up.” “Sounds like a challenge,” one of the suggests. Jerry intervenes – he’s not OK with where this is going, he’s going to stride in and save the day. The good Samaritan, he offers to give her a lift home. She’s too drunk to walk. But then, he takes her back to his apartment, and then he’s kissing her. She’s not responding, she sits there inert, but he carries on. She says she needs to lie down, and he puts her on the bed. He then proceeds to take off her underwear while she protests, weakly, “what are you doing, what are you doing?” while Jerry says in a comforting voice “it’s OK, you’re safe.” She snaps back to sober, “Hey. I said, what are you doing?”
More crushing than the swift popping of Jerry’s feminist-knight-in-shining-armour balloon is Cassie’s relationship with Ryan. Ryan seems to be the answer to Cassie’s pain and bitterness. There’s a proper meet cute – albeit, befitting the general vibe of the film, a sightly weird one – he recognises her from med school, he accidentally offends her by asking, when he orders coffee at the café where she works, “why are you working here?” He’s embarrassed, he suggests that he deserves for her to spit in his coffee, which she does. He drinks it anyway, and asks her on a date. So, weird, yes, but nonetheless a meet cute. There’s a bit of a wobble – he ‘accidentally’ walks them back to his apartment after a date and invites her up and it freaks her out a bit, and ends in her walking away, kicking a bin, and leaving him upset on the street. But she goes to see him, they make up, and he agrees to take it slow. No problem, no guilt trip. “Of course.” He says “I can take it slow. I can barely move, if you’d like.” And he means it. He’s patient with her, he even forgives her when she bails on a movie date and he runs into her apparently drop-down drunk, leaving a bar with a random guy, heading off for a revenge encounter. After Nina’s mum urges Cassie to move on, she tries to put a stop to her revenge hobby and she goes to apologise to Ryan. After a while things get back on track and there is a big, happy healthy relationship love montage – they make each other laugh singing along to Paris Hilton in a pharmacy, they have breakfast together, they eat pizza, they have an awkward dinner at her parents’ house. They say they are falling in love with one another. Cassie is happy. It appears that she has hung up her revenge boots for good.
But Ryan does not turn out to be the nice guy’s redemption after all. Cassie and Ryan, as we find out when they first meet in the film, knew each other from medical school – the same medical school where Nina was raped by Al Monroe. Ryan, we learn, is still in touch with Al and his friends: “They’re not that bad,” Ryan insists, “they aren’t really.” Later, Cassie is given a video, one she hadn’t seen before, that shows Nina being assaulted. In the video we hear Ryan’s voice. He is laughing. Rather than showing contrition when Cassie confronts him with the video, he starts to panic about how her unreasonable response might ruin his life (more on this below). So, yeah. The ‘nice guy’ never gets to be redeemed in Promising Young Woman. He’s pulverised.
The invisible victim
Cassie’s love for Nina burns strong and constant throughout the film; it is the bedrock of everything she does. Other than the fact that she was Cassie’s best friend from childhood onwards, however, we know very little about Nina herself. She is not a fully rounded character but merely a ghost, a two-dimensional figure who exists only as the motive for Cassie’s revenge spree. We find out a bit more at the end – when she has Al handcuffed to the bed, Cassie tries to impress on him how his actions destroyed a wonderful human being, telling him that Nina was smart, that she was funny, that she was ‘herself’ from a young age. This itself is fairly bland, but it’s all we get. This may well be a deliberate decision. When she gives this speech about Nina to Al, Cassie is boiling with rage that Nina was in some way erased by the rape and its aftermath:
She was just… Nina. And then she wasn’t. Suddenly she was something else. She was yours. It wasn’t her name she heard when she was walking around. It was yours. Your name all around her. All over her, all the time. And it just… squeezed her out.
To balance the scales, Cassie has decided, she is going to carve Nina’s name into Al’s chest so that her name will, likewise, follow him everywhere he goes. So, I assume that leaving Nina as a mere shadow of a person was a deliberate choice. But, nonetheless, does it run the risk of once again reducing women who have experienced sexual violence merely to ‘victims,’ denying them representation of their full personhood? This remind me of something Chanel Miller wrote in her powerful memoir Know My Name (to be discussed in a forthcoming post on this blog), which details the aftermath of her sexual assault by Brock Turner on Stanford campus in 2015: that, after four years of being referred to in the public sphere as “unconscious woman,” she was reclaiming her name and her identity. Miller, of course, is a real, three-dimensional person; Nina is not. Nonetheless, perhaps the film would have packed more of a punch if Nina had been fleshed out beyond the very bare bones.
Final remarks: finding redemption
Once her revenge spree moves from the random to the personal, Cassie gives each of her targets the opportunity for redemption before she moves to the full spite of her revenge. She gives Madison the chance to say that she regretted how she’d treated Nina after the rape, or that she would behave differently if a friend came to her in similar circumstances now, and she’s disappointed when Madison doesn’t take that chance. She gives Dean Walker the chance to say that she had made the wrong decision in failing to take Nina’s report of rape seriously, but Walker fails to take it. She is met, in almost all of the cases, with defensiveness. “I don’t know why you’re mad at me,” says an irritated Madison, “I’m not the only one who didn’t believe it.” “What would you have me do?” asks Dean Walker. “Ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this?”
The men who were involved in Nina’s rape display this defensiveness most angrily. Ryan and Al both come across as panicked, pathetic, their thoughts immediately jumping to the potential – unbelievably unfair – impact of all this on their lives, their careers, their relationships, without showing any concern for what they did to Nina. Ryan cycles through all the old reliable responses: I don’t remember, I was just a kid, I didn’t even do anything. Don’t think I’m a bad person. I love you. You’ve got to forgive me, tell me you forgive me. Have you never done anything you’re ashamed of? I don’t know if I can live with the threat of this hanging over me. You’re a failure. Al, similarly, calls up several of those trusty old standbys: I didn’t do anything. We were kids. Maybe she regretted it afterwards but she was into it. We were all drunk. And the real humdinger: “I was affected by it too, OK. It’s every guy’s worst nightmare, getting accused like that.”
There is only one figure of redemption who passes Cassie’s test: Jordan Green, the lawyer hired to work for Al Monroe and many others like him. He remembers Nina’s name. He had, he tells Cassie, an “epiphany,” although he explains that his doctors called it a “psychotic episode,” and as a result he is no longer working as a lawyer. He confesses to Cassie how his old law firm digs up dirt on the women who accuse their clients of rape, trawling social media for anything that might make a jury hostile. He can’t forgive himself. He can’t sleep. Unlike the others, Green does not consider himself to be a good man; instead he is willing to try to atone for the harm that he has done. Cassie forgives him; and in the end, he is a vital cog in realising her final act of revenge from beyond the grave.
While Cassie has only scornful distain for men who claim to be ‘nice guys,’ then – “you might be surprised to hear that gentlemen are sometimes the worst” – there is room for redemption in her worldview, and that of the film. This redemption, however, is hard fought. It requires us all to take a long, hard look in the mirror; because rape culture is pervasive, and is reproduced even by many people who do not think of themselves as part of the problem.