Cassie (Carey Mulligan) lays sprawled across her seat at a local dive bar – lulling her head and slurring her words. She’s blistering drunk, all alone, and attracting the stares of a group of guys. ‘That is just asking for it’ one of them huffs, another one decides to go over to Cassie and offer her a ride home; believing he’s struck gold. Or at least, that’s what he thinks. Once back at the guy’s place – and after some appalling attempts by the guy to sexually assault Cassie – Cassie flips a switch. She sinisterly reveals that she is in fact stone cold sober and gives the guy a stern and threatening lecture on the importance of consent and not taking advantage of women before waltzing home to repeat the night after with another unsuspecting stranger. This is the opening of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman – a fervent and forthright but slightly off the mark take on rape culture and the journey for retribution.  

Photo © Courtesy of Focus Features

Just turned 30 and working in a coffee shop, Cassie lives at home with her parents. Several years prior she quit med school to take care of her friend, Nina. Nina was Cassie’s university friend who dropped out and then ultimately killed herself after being sexually assaulted by a classmate whilst she was drunk. Throughout the film, we’re taken on a tour of all the excuses and justifications that ensured Nina’s abuser walked free without punishment or persecution. Old classmates roll their eyes and say that Nina was known for ‘sleeping around’ while a university dean mutters about not wanting to ruin the lives of young men – the title of the film itself is a reference to how the Stanford rapist Brock Turner was described by the media as being a young man with a ‘promising’ future . Now, as a one-woman band against rape culture, Cassie takes it into her own hands to personally avenge Nina and ensure men think twice before assaulting drunk women.

Photo © Courtesy of Focus Features

Promising Young Woman toys with the ideologies and structures of the rape revenge genre, constantly hinting at an eventual climax of violence or execution, but never quite delivers on its promise. The script is filled with empty notions of shock, gimmick, and ‘ah-ha! Gotcha’ moments – at one point Cassie tricks a woman to believe she had been raped but apparently this is fine because she wasn’t really raped; a grim and tasteless directorial choice which is hard to swallow. Even with such a sensitive subject at its very centre, Promising Young Woman still manages to withhold a lot of empathy and understanding for those affected by the matter at hand. Throughout the film, the point is made how victims are stripped of their names and identity as they are often referred to in relation to their abuser – ‘it wasn’t her name she heard when she was walking around, it was yours’ Cassie tells Nina’s rapist in one scene. However, this is something the film itself is incredibly guilty of. Nina’s story is never really told nor is her connection with Cassie ever truly explained. She’s an emblem of pain and anguish for Cassie but that’s it – Nina herself is a character who has no identifiable traits other than the abuse she’s been through. Breezily skipping over the hurt and emotional torment created by such abuse – and also the experiences and personalities of victims themselves – the film ultimately ends up feeling hollow and soulless as it holds such a vacant and detached regard to victims and all they’ve been through. 

Photo © Courtesy of Focus Features

While nevertheless raising interesting points about misogyny and rape culture, a lot of the film’s dialogue and feminist theory feels clunky, rudimentary, and although it has been copy-and-pasted from an Instagram infographic. This is not to say the story has no value but it is undeniably a film targeted at those themselves either guilty of perpetrating rape culture or those who are only just learning about it. Which, while still important, does not provide catharsis for survivors and women in the way that rape revenge films are intended to. This purposeful undercutting of genre tropes is explained by some as an attempt at realism as victims often don’t get the justice they deserve; something depicted when Cassie’s plans of vengeance go horribly wrong. Yet it’s difficult to buy that the film is entirely realistic as it still plays into such unlikely fantasies – which is why it can be so hard to find believable empowerment or satisfaction in Cassie’s actions. 

Photo © Courtesy of Focus Features

Although unrealistic, in usual rape revenge films viewers can dive deep into a gloriously violent fantasy where predators will undoubtedly get their comeuppance. If Promising Young Woman is truly a film rooted in realism, then it is hard to believe that Cassie has gone back to hundreds of predatory men’s apartments, revealed her true intentions, and left completely unscathed each time. It’s also hard to accept that Cassie would get away with furiously smashing up an angry man’s truck with a crowbar without him at all retaliating. Even the film’s ending revels in a delusion that police and authorities are irrefutably the ones to provide justice despite how many survivors are let down and shunned by the criminal justice system. If the film were to end in a completely nihilistic and bleak way, at least it would have been honest but it’s hard to believe that its fairy-tale ending after such an awful and brutal trajectory is little more than a way for viewers to feel better about the world. 

It’s not for anyone to say what films can and cannot provide something of comfort for survivors, but there is something to be said about the way in which Promising Young Woman mercilessly exploits and undercuts rape revenge tropes in a film that was only ever meant to be for those not affected by the subject at its core. Mulligan leads with a stellar performance and the film undoubtedly opens up some important conversations about consent, sexual violence, and misogyny. Yet still, the film’s aloof and removed feelings towards victims and its inability to commit to either harsh reality or far-fetched fantasy makes it feel empty, careless, and ultimately hard to enjoy.

Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Written by Abi Aherne

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

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About View of the Arts

We are open-minded individuals, for whom there are no limits. We always seem to spend our last few pennies on the arts instead of bread and butter! Oh well, it’s worth it! You will always find us in a cinema, at film festivals, fashion shows, concerts, galleries or the theatre. We are a group of female film critics, arts journalists, and photographers.

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