This is a spoiler review, so if you haven’t seen Promising Young Woman, I suggest you go and see it before reading this. If you would like a non-spoiler review, head here.
“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.”
Promising Young Woman is easily one of the best films of the year with Carey Mulligan in position to receive some Best Actress awards. The reaction to the film has been mixed and it’s no surprise as to why. People are wondering if the ending, that being Cassie’s death, is absolutely necessary. Yes, it’s a shocker, it’s upsetting even. But when it comes down to it, this shocking conclusion needed to happen.
At the end of the movie, we find Cassie (Carey Mulligan) dealing with the fact that Ryan (Bo Burnham), her boyfriend, is in the cellphone video of Nina’s rape. That’s it, Cassie sets out to seek revenge on the men who hurt her best friend. An eerie version of Britney Spears’ Toxic plays in the background as Cassie makes her way up an uneven path, dressed in a sexy nurse’s uniform, to a rowdy bunch of men celebrating a bachelor party. But this is no ordinary bachelor party, this is Al Monroe’s bachelor party. Once inside Cassie drugs the guests, and takes Al to the upstairs bedroom. We wait with bated breath as we believe that Cassie will finally get her revenge against the guy who raped her friend. She confronts him as he’s chained to the bed, and upon making a lunge at this guy, he breaks free of the handcuffs, overpowering her, and suffocates Cassie with a pillow. We wait as though maybe she’s still alive, but she doesn’t move. Al and his friend burn her body in one last ditch effort to hide their true evil persona. What’s the point of Cassie’s journey if it all ends like this?
An Honest Look at Sexual Assault and the Potential Aftermath
As we take a look at Promising Young Woman, the film refuses to shy away from the tragic reality that often comes with the aftermath of a sexual assault. There’s an important scene when Cassie drives to Nina’s childhood home. Nina’s mother comes out and has a lengthy conversation with her. She tells Cassie that she has to move on — that her dwelling on this is “not good for anybody.” Cassie’s revenge fueled evenings of luring guys — revealing their malicious intent — is beginning to take its toll on the young woman. But even as she finds herself in a relationship, she can’t give it up, as Ryan finds her on the arm of another man — a man she plans to teach a lesson to. We all know where her relationship with Ryan goes in the end, but this moment explains that while Cassie may be trying see Ryan, she can’t seem to escape the past.
Director Emerald Fennel said in an interview that the ending is “honest. It’s how the system works. The house always wins.” Promising Young Woman is, absolutely, a terrifyingly honest story. It wouldn’t make sense for the film to reveal this harsh reality, but then proceed to give a cookie-cutter hero moment with Cassie’s triumph over evil. Sadly, most of the time that’s just not how it goes. Nina’s rapists fought those allegations once with no one believing her story. If Cassie doesn’t die, wouldn’t she just find herself in the same never-ending circle with no justice actually being served? More on this a little later.
There’s a story of a priest named Maximillian Kolbe who was sent to Auschwitz during the height of Hitler’s reign of terror. Long story short, Kolbe gave his life for someone else, and eventually became a saint due to his martyrdom. So how does this story relate to Promising Young Woman? Throughout the film there are signs that make Cassie appear to be saint like. One instance, in particular, shows Cassie standing in front of a light blue circle — much like artistic renditions of female saints with a halo glow around their head. One could look at this and perceive that maybe she gave up her life, in essence committing martyrdom for this cause. Therefore, removing these men from society, so that other women won’t become victims of them down the road. Now with Cassie’s murder, the men find themselves with no escape as two now face murder charges, while the other men will most certainly find their reputations reduced to nothing.
Survivors Guilt and Grief
So what happens if Cassie succeeds, and carves Nina’s name all over Al’s body? The most likely outcome being that Cassie now faces charges. Or, a nicer outlook is Al, and the other guys, face charges and go to jail, because of the recently obtained video of the incident. That is if the incident is within the statute of limitations. For the positive outcome, I ask, what now? Promising Young Woman, although it markets itself as a thriller dripping with revenge, it’s actually about grief. The whole film Cassie is grieving for her friend — beating herself up that she didn’t attend the party with Nina. Much like people who survive mass shootings, there’s often that thought of wondering “why that person, and not me?” You can tell Cassie admired Nina — in awe that Nina would be friends with her. However, the men get off scot-free, live their lives, as the world continues to close in on Nina.
After Nina’s suicide, Cassie’s grief is so much a part of her. She’s consumed by it. If she would have succeeded in bringing those men down, would she have stopped heading to bars and faking to be blackout drunk? There’s a line that her father says to her after she brings Ryan home to meet her parents. He tells her, “Nina was like a daughter to us. You know that. We really miss her. But, God, we have missed you.” After Nina’s rape, Cassie was no longer Cassie. And even after trying to put together the pieces of her life, which eventually crumble, she’ll never be Cassie again. So while some say that our heroine deserves to live out the rest of her life in peace and happiness, I feel like there is no way for Cassie to go back to her life before. That even though she may have brought justice for her friend, happiness will always remain a distant memory. Thus, illustrating the severity of sexual assault, not only for the victims, but for their loved ones around them.
There’s no concrete explanation to Promising Young Women. After seeing the divisive response to the ending, I thought I’d share my own opinions. To end Promising Young Woman on a, well, promising note, would be untrue. That if Cassie carves “Nina” into Al’s body, everything would go back to the way it was. But sadly, that’s not what happens in reality. Victims of sexual assault are never really “done” as it continues to haunt them. Whether you love the film, or find it problematic, you can’t deny that the impact of Promising Young Woman develops a dialogue between its audience members — making this one the most significant films of 2020.