Every once in a while, I’ll watch a movie that I love so much, it settles into my chest like a bad cold I can’t shake. That might sound like a bad thing, or at the very least an uncomfortable thing. But that’s what art is supposed to do, right? To change your perspective to the point of physical discomfort. Such was my experience with Promising Young Woman.
This dark dramedy starring Carey Mulligan is the story of Cassie, a 30-year-old woman whose life, for reasons we initially don’t understand, has gone nowhere. She’s still living at home. She works in a minimum wage job. She has no discernible social life.
Except that Cassie has a secret. At night, she goes to night clubs and pretends to be drunk, so as to act as bait to predatory men. They escort her out of the club, under the guise of “looking out for her”, then attempt to have sex with her. The fact that she can barely hold her head up seems to add to the thrill for them. When Cassie drops the act and confronts her attackers, they all sing the same refrain. “I’m a nice guy.” For a while, it seems like the film wants us to think that Cassie is acting out her own revenge fantasies. That she herself was the victim of a sexual assault, and it is the cause of all her present hardship. The truth, however, is that it was Cassie’s best friend Nina, and not Cassie herself, who was raped. We are later lead to understand the Nina killed herself as a result of her sexual trauma. Is a horrible, and horribly familiar, story which haunts Cassie in the intervening years.
As I sat watching the credits roll two hours later, I felt unusually conflicted. On the one hand, I wanted to recommend this movie to everyone. On the other hand, if viewed in a certain light, this film postulates that every man who paints himself as a “nice guy” can only call himself such because he refuses to acknowledge his own predatory or complicit nature. I had to stop and wonder if this movie might, to some viewers, appear to want to punish men for existing.
Short answer: it doesn’t. And the only reason I momentarily felt that way was because I was missing the point. This isn’t a revenge story about a lone victim taking on a world full of predators. This is a view of what the world looks like when everyone is a victim. Or at least acts like one.
Let’s start with the Boys.
In another review of this film, it was said that all the supporting male roles were filled by actors who are often typecast as good guys. This wasn’t an accident. As an audience, it’s jarring to see performers we are predisposed to like act in a way that is unambiguously disgusting. When Cassie learns that her charming boyfriend (Bo Burnham) was present during Nina’s rape at a college party and did nothing, she confronts him and threatens to release footage of him at the party, laughing at a sexual assault. He says that “he was just a kid” and should therefore not be held accountable for something that happened years ago. When Cassie ends their relationship he seems hurt and betrayed, rather than remorseful.
All of the men that Cassie confronts share in this reaction. They cannot comprehend how one “mistake” should define their entire lives. The suffering they inflict on others in the course of that mistake seems to factor in not at all.
Cassie’s parents aren’t exempt from this. Though at first they appear supportive and patient with their wayward daughter, we soon see the tension bubbling under the surface. For her 30th birthday, Cassie’s mother buys her an expensive suitcase. It’s her not so subtle hint that Cassie has overstayed her welcome. At one point in the film, The mother, (played beautifully against type by Jennifer Coolidge) bursts into tears and bemoans how embarrassing her daughter has become to her. How can she ever explain Cassie’s failure to her friends?
I could go on. At some point in the movie, almost every character stops, looks at the literal and figurative carnage around them and asks, “why me?”
There was one, though, that stood out to me. Alfred Molina plays the attorney that bullied Nina into dropping her case against a star med student that raped her at the infamous party. When Cassie goes to him with an intent to punish his wrong deeds, he welcomes her in. He admits his sins. He begs her forgiveness. And ultimately, he is forgiven, by Cassie and by us.
Which now brings me to Cassie.
As I mentioned, at the beginning of the film, I believed that Cassie was the victim of the rape that precipitates this story. She’s angry. She’s withdrawn. She’s put her life on hold because she’s incapable of moving on from what was clearly a traumatic event. She becomes an Angel of Vengeance who’s single-minded agenda, however righteous, is her own undoing.
Except that Cassie wasn’t raped.
She takes on Nina’s tragedy and makes it her own. To the audience, and the other characters, it’s a mourning that goes beyond normal grief and anger. Cassie assumes Nina’s victimhood and sets out to right wrongs that may not have been hers to right. When Cassie visits Nina’s likewise grieving mother, we expect her, to some extent, sympathize with her inability to move on. She doesn’t. She tells Cassie that for everyone’s sake, she needs to let go.
Cassie doesn’t let go, and in one of the most horrifyingly ironic narrative twists I’ve ever seen, Cassie is murdered by the same person that is, at least indirectly, responsible for Nina’s death. Her borrowed victimhood became a self fulfilling prophecy.
I don’t think this movie is really about feminism. I don’t think that it was an indictment of the patriarchy. I don’t even think it was actually about the aftermath of sexual assault, although all those elements are there. I think this movie was about what happens when everyone believes themselves to be the “good guy” who is an innocent victim of an unjust system. It’s about the damage that can be wrought by that way of thinking.
Tell me if that sounds familiar.