By Robert Dougherty
“Promising Young Woman” has already been established as a film unlike any other this year, let alone most so-called vigilante movies through the decades. But to find a true companion piece to this movie, one only needs to go back four years ago, when “Get Out” became the kind of genre-shattering, socially relevant and Oscar-crashing film “Promising Young Woman” is in the process of becoming.
DO NOT READ WITHOUT SEEING “PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN” & “GET OUT” FIRST
***MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW***
While “Get Out” tackled racism both overt and under the surface, “Promising Young Woman” turns a similar eye towards rape culture and its enablers. Although both social issues are wildly different and are seen through wildly different perspectives, there is a lot more that these films share in common regarding tactics, targets, endings, their respective masterminds and perhaps even their respective Oscar races when all is said and done.
First and foremost, it cannot be ignored that “Get Out” was released in the first few weeks of the Trump administration, while “Promising Young Woman” bookended it by coming out near its very end. Just as “Get Out” will go down as one of the defining tales of America’s racist surface and underbelly in an era where they were primary features of the past administration, “Promising Young Woman” will go down as one of the era’s defining tales of America’s misogynistic surface and underbelly in a time when they were features of the past administration as well. While none of these films mention Trump or MAGA nation directly, they make it impossible to ignore that without the racist, sexist, white and male supremacist systems both films examine, the Trump era either wouldn’t have happened or would have been much harder to pull off.
However, both films stand out for not making the Trump/MAGA crowd its primary targets or villains. In fact, their greatest ire is saved for more supposedly left-leaning, “nice guy” villains who may not be the most violent and hateful examples of the culture but still have no problems benefiting from and enabling it.
“Get Out” is full of white people who tout their so-called progressive beliefs to their guest/target Chris, never use any racial slurs and insist racism has nothing to do with their way of thinking. Yet they still go about abducting black people, possessing their bodies and appropriating black culture all to achieve immortality and greater physical power. In that context, it is able to make a greater statement against a larger system of racial theft, appropriation and overt and hidden racism than it would have if its villains were run-of-the-mill rednecks, cross burners and MAGA supporters; whose crimes are much easier to sweep under the rug when supposedly more enlightened people find their own ways to benefit from white supremacy as well.
“Promising Young Woman” is also a movie where the oppressive culture supporters are often greater targets than its most violent monsters. For much of the film, Cassie Thomas centers her rage and ritualistic routine against “nice guys” who tout how different they are from rapist men, just like “Get Out’s” white villains constantly tout how different they are from racists. Yet Cassie knows from experience how that’s just not true, and also knows full well that it’s not just men who suffer from this delusion as well, as illuminated when she later targets women who disbelieved and swept away the rape of her best friend, Nina
In that context, “Promising Young Woman” is able to make a greater statement against a larger system of rape culture, its overt and hidden supporters and its disregard for women than it would be if most of its villains were run-of-the-mill rapists, abusers and killers; whose crimes are much easier to sweep under the rug when supposedly more enlightened people find their own ways to benefit from male supremacy as well.
Both movies also personalize the deeper evil of their respective systems through surprise betrayals at the end of Act 2. For that matter, both betrayals are not only from the closest companions and the last supposed safe havens for Chris and Cassie but are each from characters with four-letter first names beginning with R.
Still, “Get Out’s” Rose turns out to be a far more active traitor and participant in her film’s evil than “Promising Young Woman’s” Ryan. But in many ways, Ryan merely standing by and doing nothing while others harm women right in front of him is just as ugly as Rose’s full-on participation in luring black men towards their capture.
For movies that take a more complete look at oppressive systems and their full spectrum of perpetrators than others might, these ultimate examples of white/male supremacy and complicity are far less surprising in retrospect. Yet for Chris and Cassie and the audiences fooled along with them, the red flags about Rose and Ryan from minute one are ignored right from the start, until they only become painfully obvious later. But in a world where so many need to believe that there are true “nice guys” and “white allies” out there, after all, Rose and Ryan fool most viewers and Chris and Cassie, just as so many like them, fool many of us in reality – at least those of us who don’t bother to look closer from the start.
Once Chris and Cassie don’t have Rose or Ryan to fall back on, they are on their own in fighting the systems they represent. Yet here is where the two movies take on massively different directions, at least on the surface. However, the final outcome of “Promising Young Woman” can be seen as a more expanded version of the final moments of “Get Out,” both from its theatrical and alternate endings.
“Get Out” allows Chris to kill the Armitage family and break free before his body and soul are hijacked for good, whereas “Promising Young Woman” ends far differently by killing Cassie and only allowing her to get true justice for her and Nina through her death. Nonetheless, the two share the same tactics for pushing the audiences’ buttons and expectations at the very last minute, although one takes it a lot further than the other ultimately decided to do.
In its theatrical cut, “Get Out” ends by making us dread a very familiar outcome for Chris, as his attempt to finish off Rose is interrupted by a cop car headed his way. For those who know all too well what would normally happen to Chris in such a scenario, and for those who might have become a bit more aware while watching the movie, a collective sense of doom is felt in that moment.
But instead, it turns into a sigh of great relief and wish fulfillment as Chris’s best friend Rod emerges instead, allowing us all to feel an overdue catharsis – and a chance to enjoy the dramatic irony of a police car abandoning a dying white person for once. That final twist and gag may have sealed “Get Out’s” larger success more than the original ending would have, where Chris is actually arrested by real cops and ends up in jail, with his only comfort coming from destroying the Armitages’ experiments.
In a way, “Promising Young Woman” is what would have happened if that original “Get Out” ending stuck. But it appears there is no alternate ending where Cassie survives instead of being smothered to death by Nina’s rapist, which becomes more painfully clear afterward when her murder is successfully covered up and uninvestigated. By the time Al Monroe’s wedding takes place, it looks like justice isn’t coming at all like it probably wouldn’t in real life either, at least until “Angel of the Morning” plays on the soundtrack and Cassie’s contingency plan of revenge finally plays out.
We only had to imagine the worst for a few seconds in “Get Out” when the cop car came for Chris, making us anticipate a horrible ending that would have happened 99 percent of the time in real life – and did, in fact, happen in the original cut. When the opposite happens in the theatrical cut, it secures “Get Out’s” place in history and lets us breathe easier at the movie’s final ironic, wish-granting punch line. But “Promising Young Woman” stretches out our agony for over 10 minutes until such a catharsis comes and justice is done; and even then, it doesn’t change that Cassie had to die for it to happen.
Both movies end by evoking the shadows of real-life police brutality and violence against women and how they are usually unpunished. Yet both then end with the kind of finale so often denied for real people of color and women in such scenarios. Of course, Chris lives to see it happen while Cassie doesn’t, so these endings aren’t a complete relief in every way. Nonetheless, both films choose to end with some kind of hope that the participants of such ugly systems can, in fact, go down after all.
Maybe that’s a big reason why both movies did so well in the long run, or at least better than they would have with more depressing endings. Of course, one movie didn’t end this way at first and the other still killed off its heroine, so both certainly didn’t intend to end with sunshine and rainbows no matter what. But they both put us through the paces in the same ways at the end, if not for the same length of time or with the same exact outcome, before securing their fans’ adoration with endings that make them wish real life could turn out somewhat like this every once in a while. Though if it did, both movies wouldn’t need to exist at all.
“Get Out” and “Promising Young Woman” don’t just use these twists and others for drama and social commentary, but for black comedy first and foremost, before and after the full brutality of their stories are uncovered. These unusual tactics are made possible by their most unusual masterminds, who would be among the last people expected to pull off stories like this beforehand, especially for their first time out of the gate.
Both “Get Out’s” Jordan Peele and “Promising Young Woman’s” Emerald Fennell made their writing and directorial debuts with these movies, after breaking out mainly as showrunners and performers on television. Peele came from the world of sketch comedy, most notably as co-creator and star of Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele,” making his breakout as a horror writer/director that much more surprising. Fennell’s path towards “Promising Young Woman” was a bit easier to see coming, given that she ran the second season of “Killing Eve,” a show about a much more violent, demented and darkly comic female assassin. Otherwise, this would be a lot more surprising to those who mainly knew Fennell from her recurring acting role as Camilla Parker Bowles in “The Crown.”
Peele and Fennell not only drastically reinvented themselves, they did so with genres and original release dates that don’t usually yield awards attention. “Get Out” was not only the rare horror and comedy film to contend at the Oscars. It was the increasingly rare movie to open very early in the year and stay in the awards conversation many months later. “Promising Young Woman” could have faced the same obstacles if it opened in April as first planned, but its release over the holidays may result in it peaking at the right time, depending on what happens when more voters see it and more general audiences weigh in.
“Get Out” ultimately yielded nominations for the movie, its direction, its screenplay and its lead performer, all of which “Promising Young Woman” could match as well. It is still on the Best Picture bubble, despite having more nominations and top 10 placements from critic groups than any film besides “Nomadland,” while Fennell has reached the Best Director bubble with more critic group nominations than any director besides “Nomadland’s” Chloe Zhao, and Carey Mulligan has more Best Actress critic wins than anyone besides “Nomadland’s” Frances McDormand to help make her case.
Yet, at the moment, its most secure category may be Best Original Screenplay, which could contain its best hopes for a win if it gets that far. This is where “Promising Young Woman” can possibly change the entire outcome of the Best Picture race, like “Get Out” did three years ago.
While that movie lost for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, it was still rewarded with Best Original Screenplay over eventual Best Picture winner “The Shape of Water” and top Best Picture challenger “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” This was especially significant because if “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” had won for Screenplay, combined with its acting wins for McDormand and Sam Rockwell, it is very hard to imagine it losing Best Picture with that combination. But without a Screenplay Oscar to put it over the top, the door was left open for “The Shape of Water” to inch through at the end, thanks to “Get Out” paving the way.
Now, such a scenario is very possible for “Promising Young Woman” to repeat, as it finds itself in the middle of a potential Best Picture showdown between “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Nomadland” If “The Trial of the Chicago 7” can win for Original Screenplay as it is still favored to, then that award alone could be enough to put it over the top for Best Picture, as it did for “Spotlight” in 2015. Yet in recent weeks, “Promising Young Woman” has emerged as a big threat in Original Screenplay and has won more critic awards in that category than any potential Oscar nominee so far.
If it were to go all the way and give Fennell an upset victory over Aaron Sorkin, even if “Promising Young Woman” is snubbed or defeated in other categories, that could derail “The Trial of the Chicago 7’s” Best Picture chances then and there. And just as “Get Out’s” Screenplay win made it possible for a Searchlight produced film in “The Shape of Water” to seize Best Picture, so could a “Promising Young Woman” screenplay victory clinch a Best Picture win for another Searchlight production in “Nomadland” in case it needs that extra boost.
Should such history repeat itself, it would be a fitting final note to link “Promising Young Woman” and “Get Out” together in Oscar history, after all the ways the movies themselves are linked together as well. As bookends for the Trump era, as redefining takes on the ugly systems that helped create the Trump era and so much more misery, as wish fulfillments for vengeance against such cultures and as breakout achievements for two unlikely creators, these two films are already spiritually linked as it is.
What do you think of “Promising Young Woman?” Do you think it will follow a similar awards trajectory as “Get Out” did? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. Also check out the latest Oscar predictions from the Next Best Picture team here.
You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @robertdoc1984