Tuesday, February 27, 2024

“Promising Young Woman” – The Rorschach Test Revenge Movie

By Robert Dougherty 

​”Promising Young Woman” is a film that goes against its “revenge movie” advertising and formula, well before the soon to be famous or infamous finale. By then, the viewer has plenty of time to decide whether this is the kind of “revenge movie” they are willing to get behind and whether they mind by then that it isn’t what the trailer, or the revenge genre in general, promised them they were in for.


The revenge genre doesn’t just usually promise a male hero who avenges their loved ones, but one who does so as brutally as possible, depending on the rating. Even as “Promising Young Woman” sold itself as a female-centered revenge thriller for the Me Too era, it came implied with hints, if not an outright confirmation, that Carey Mulligan’s Cassie would strike back against the “nice guys” “bros” and outright rapists in her path in a violent if not outright deadly fashion. That is what we’ve been trained to expect from the genre, even when it is being subverted, and little about the marketing suggested otherwise either.

It takes about 15 minutes and three confrontations between Cassie and “nice guys” to realize that “Promising Young Woman” is not that kind of revenge story. As it goes further and further along to prove it, it becomes one giant Rorschach Test that makes the viewer question how much they’re really on board with that, and if not, why that might be – and not all of those who aren’t on board can be faulted for it by the movie’s champions.

First and foremost, “Promising Young Woman” is a revenge movie with a so-called avenger who seldom physically harms, let alone kills or tries to kill, her targets no matter how “nice” they are or not. This only becomes clear once she confronts Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s “nice guy,” spells out what she does every week, then leaves her target completely unharmed when he relents, just like it appears she does every week.

Before actually watching “Promising Young Woman,” I wrote an article on NBP that compared it to last year’s “Joker.” I expressed concern that Oscar voters and audiences who embraced a male antihero/supervillain violently fighting against a toxic society that forged him wouldn’t be so forgiving towards a female antihero doing the same. That was before I saw just how relatively non-violent and somewhat merciful Cassie’s methods of striking back really were – and how the only character who suffers a violent fate in her journey is Cassie herself. While this works to please those looking for more variety in genre films, not everyone will feel as forgiving, and not all for the same reasons. 

For those who merely want to see violent revenge scenes, like in most other vengeance movies, their concerns aren’t as vital. But there are others who are sure to see a more troubling double standard, in that men can take revenge on society’s worst as graphically and unapologetically as they want, yet in “Promising Young Woman,” a woman isn’t allowed to do the same and is murdered herself the one time she tries.

Promising Young Woman

Writer/director Emerald Fennell later told Harper’s Bazaar that Cassie’s attack on the rapist that ultimately kills her couldn’t work because “the reality of the situation” dictated it. But in a world where we use our full suspension of disbelief for male vigilantes mowing down their foes, and even for those select few female vigilantes and heroes, the argument that “Promising Young Woman’s” ending has to be more realistic because “this is what happens when women try to be violent” in reality may not sound right to everyone. In fact, hiding behind the “reality” defense has too often been the excuse of too many TV shows and movies for their over-the-top, unbalanced violence against women and people of color.

Those more inclined to think of or care about such issues might not just object to Cassie being killed, but to all the other ways she’s held back from going too far before then. That also extends into act 2, where she confronts the women who didn’t believe Cassie’s best friend Nina was raped by the medical student who eventually kills Cassie. But even when Cassie makes it look like she sends a man to rape her former friend Madison after she gets drunk, and even when Cassie suggests she set up the daughter of the medical school dean to possibly get raped herself, none of that actually happens either. Incidentally, the word rape isn’t said once in the movie, either by Cassie or her targets.

But what if this was a movie where Cassie took more violent revenge against “nice guys” and rapists and actually went to those extra disturbing lengths against the women who enable their rape culture? If it was that kind of movie, there’s a real case to be made that “Promising Young Woman” would be nowhere near as likely to get as far with some reviewers and critics groups as it has, let alone with industry voters later. For that matter, maybe it wouldn’t get as far with certain members if Cassie didn’t have to die for her ultimate revenge to work either.

In that context, one can say “Promising Young Woman” goes softer than originally promised. This may seem more designed to pacify certain male viewers than some female viewers, who either might be disappointed not to get their own merciless revenge movie or who might be outright triggered by the ending and a refusal to give Cassie any real, lasting hope for something better. By those standards, “Promising Young Woman” is perhaps more offensive than subversive, especially to the kind of viewer this movie is seemingly outraged on their behalf for.

But this is just one way why the movie is such a personal Rorschach Test for any viewer and the baggage and beliefs they bring when they see it. Some concerns are easier to dismiss than others. Those whose concerns are from legitimately traumatic places cannot be faulted in any way, even by the film’s loudest defenders. Either way, one thing to agree on is that “Promising Young Woman” isn’t the movie it was sold to be, or the movie its supposed genre trained us to expect it was.

Perception is also warped in part because of Mulligan’s casting, who has never headlined or been in this type of movie before. One Variety reviewer got in hot water for claiming Mulligan wasn’t ‘hot enough’ to be believable in such a role, unlike producer Margot Robbie. But if Robbie had played Cassie, fewer viewers would have believed her being smothered by Chris Lowell’s Al Monroe at the end, despite being four inches shorter than Lowell. Thanks to her past action roles, however, it would have been much harder for many to buy Robbie’s Cassie being unable to overpower Monroe, regardless of how realistic it was. 

Therefore, Cassie’s death would have been remembered less for the deeper, darker issues it raises than for whether it made sense to certain people.

Such a death scene is an uncommon ending for most revenge movies, but truthfully, “Promising Young Woman” really isn’t a revenge movie when stripped to its deepest core. The promise of a vengeful quest against rape culture is one big red herring of sorts, to disguise what only gradually emerges as a tragic study of grief, guilt and a paralyzed life frozen without the most important person in it. 

Normally in most revenge movies, the main character’s loved ones are a mere plot point, to the extent where their revenge becomes more about their kills, their own lost souls and usually their masculinity than the actual, barely developed victims they are avenging. “Promising Young Woman” somewhat follows that trend by never showing the late Nina on screen, either before or after her assault that sets Cassie on her path. Nevertheless, unlike countless murdered wives, children, girlfriends, parents and occasionally boyfriends disposed of just to get to the action and then barely mentioned again, the importance of Nina to Cassie is never forgotten or lost on the movie. 

In fact, the reality that Nina is so easily forgotten by most everyone but Cassie while everyone knows and loves her rapist, like with so many other anonymous victims who are forgotten while their attackers remain famous and free, is a central part of Cassie and “Promising Young Woman’sdeepest outrage. As such, when Cassie’s posthumous series of text messages closes with “Love Cassie & Nina,” it is less a moment of triumph than perhaps the most tragic line of the year; not just for how prepared Cassie was to die and be with Nina again, but for how it took her death for both Cassie and Nina to be avenged or even remembered.

My own biases and perceptions might have influenced my first reaction to the ending, as I was convinced Cassie came to Monroe’s bachelor party intending to die from the start, to the point where I wondered if she deliberately didn’t cuff Monroe tight enough. Then I read Fennell’s spoilery interviews where she made it clear Cassie wasn’t going in hoping to martyr herself, and more fully remembered her final speech that made it quite clear how much she wanted her Plan A to work. 

While carving Nina’s name on Monroe wouldn’t have fully exposed him on its own and would have likely put Cassie in jail instead, it further shows her deeper mission isn’t to destroy Monroe and his fellow rapists/enablers, but just to ensure Nina – the real Nina before Monroe destroyed her – isn’t forgotten by people besides her. Her death and contingency plan becomes the most foolproof way to do it, which remains extremely tragic and telling, but merely shows Cassie was ready to die while not hoping for it. Still, decades of revenge movies where vigilantes care more about bloodshed than truly honoring lost loved ones make it harder to picture such an outcome, despite all “Promising Young Woman” does beforehand to lay the groundwork.

Promising Young woman

Yet, the extreme lengths Cassie goes to aren’t just to avenge Nina but to pacify her own guilt for not going to the party where she was raped. Saving others out of guilt for not saving a loved one first is a common origin story for vigilantes and superheroes, but as previously established, Cassie is no common vigilante. Until the ending, her most violent act is smashing a man’s car windows in the middle of the road, and even that’s mostly done in a trance after her traumatic visit to her old medical school; after which she reacts in fear and horror, not triumph, when she snaps out of it.

While her intent is to stop potential rapists from doing to other women what Monroe did to Nina, her ritual for doing so is also out of a need to create any scenario where she can stop a rape this time, if only her own. It is a coping mechanism born of guilt and loss so paralyzing that the rest of her life is frozen in time and unable to move forward without her lifelong best friend – maybe the only friend she had at all before med school – still in it.

If anything, Cassie has less in common with revenge genre icons and more with someone like Nora Durst in Season One of “The Leftovers,” where she also put herself in weekly life-threatening situations out of intense grief and loss of her loved ones, also tried to move on with a man when all else failed, and also broke down in terrible agony when she sees a particularly horrific reminder of her loss in that season’s finale. Of course, Nora ultimately got to survive and find peace, after people merely thought she died in the series finale.

Promising Young Woman” is not so merciful towards Cassie after she sees the video of Nina’s assault, finds out her new boyfriend Ryan stood by and watched it, then carries out her quasi-suicide mission against Monroe. As previously established, reactions to the deadly outcome may largely depend on what the viewer brings with them. But it is easy to see how it was intended to go much further in a world where wide theatrical releases were still possible.

Promising Young Woman” was likely designed not only as a personal Rorschach Test but as a general one for crowds at large when they saw the one-take, two-minute-long death scene of Cassie. By then, Fennell had already laid a case condemning a culture that sweeps away such violence against women and of individuals like Ryan who, at best, are so desensitized to it that they see nothing wrong with it. Now in this climactic, horrifying moment, Fennell seemingly planned to find out what we’d really learned from what came before.

​Last year, countless videos were posted of theatrical audiences cheering for the Portals scene in “Avengers: Endgame.” If “Promising Young Woman” had gotten to screen in packed or half-packed theaters, it would have been far more revealing to film the audiences watching Cassie’s murder and document their reactions if they had any.

After what they’d seen and learned to that point, would they jump up and plead at the screen for Cassie to get out, only to feel helpless as she couldn’t? Would they walkout over what they’d seen in anger or out of trauma as her death hit far too close to home? Would they stay out of shock and horror as they struggled to come to grips with what happened, then watch with familiar dread and resignation as it appears justice will never come for it, at least until the last possible minute?

Or would they be like Ryan, in that after decades of seeing women brutalized in countless ways on screen – and maybe off – it was so normalized to them they felt nothing seeing it happen again, thereby displaying their own complicity of sorts? Or would it be different this time if they had come to care for Cassie by then, unlike so many ‘disposable’ women and victims killed off in act one just to start someone’s violent retaliation? Would the issue really feel different to them now “when it’s someone you love” like it was for the dean – and likely for Cassie as well when Nina was assaulted?

If “Promising Young Woman” was in thousands of fully open theaters now, or in April as first planned, it might have made for one hell of an experiment in documenting individual and group reactions to that scene and what they did and didn’t say about them. It should still be easy to gauge such reactions now that the movie is On Demand and will be safer to discuss in-depth soon. Still, what could have been shows that unlike so many other movies in the time of COVID, “Promising Young Woman” has an actual legitimate argument to make that it should have been a theatrical experience, with crowds revealing more about themselves than intended when they first react to that scene.

Yet the entire film is like that in a way, as “Promising Young Woman” asks us what we really want out of a “revenge” movie, interrogates what we’ve come to expect from them and its vigilantes, and asks, intentionally or not, what it says about us if we think what is done by Cassie – and to her – goes too far or not far enough, for whatever reason or expectation we have going in. ​​

What do you think of “Promising Young Woman?” What are your thoughts on the ending? How do you think it will perform at this year’s Oscars? ​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

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