Everyone said Cassie was a promising young woman… until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be: she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night.
Writer-director Emerald Fennell seems to be both pushing and then questioning the avenging angel metaphor in Promising Young Woman, when Cassie (Carey Mulligan) stands in front of some decorative plasterwork that makes her look as if she has a pale blue halo and matching wing buds at her shoulders. Colour is important in this film, growing in vibrancy as Cassie ventures back into the world, but pastels aren’t very vengeful; while Cassie’s scattergun approach to life makes me wonder if she wants not revenge but freedom through redemption.
Sometimes the imagery is a little too blatant, but then so much of Fennell’s film boldly changes direction and tone, forcing us to face up to our own complicity and deep-seated beliefs. That’s reflected in Cassie too, who seems like a mouse placed in a maze, dashing this way and that, keeping busy so she doesn’t have to face up to the fact that she’s trapped.
Cassie may consider herself more angry angel than timid mouse but really she’s a mess. Floundering in the years after her best friend Nina was raped by a fellow student and later killed herself, her responses, which initially look cleverly well-planned and darkly comic, on closer inspection turn out to be dangerous and haphazard, without making much difference.
Cassie lives at home with parents who love her, in an extraordinarily beige house. Her coffee shop co-worker Gail (Laverne Cox) also loves Cassie but like her parents is exasperated at Cassie’s treading-water lifestyle. Gail proactively encourages her to go for a better job in head office; her parents buy her a suitcase as a birthday present to make her leave.
Cassie is so stuck even Nina’s mother has had enough of her. When Cassie visits her she wants absolution and approval but what she gets is a frustrated plea to move on.
At night she visits clubs and pretends to be drunk, abandoned by her friends. Supposedly nice young men take her home and ply her with more drink. As they go further and further, she reveals herself to be clear-eyed and alert, pulling them up on their willingness to assault and scaring them half to death.
Walking home in the early daylight, she marks these “anti-conquests” in her book, using five bar gates to tally the numbers. Her notebook is crammed; the chapters of the film are marked in the same way, but in pink.
It’s often boring work (listening to drunk men drone on), but it’s also dangerous, relying on these men, already taking advantage of her supposedly inebriated state to assault her, to be the types who consider themselves nice and will therefore will back off when she confronts them.
“All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing,” said Edmund Burke, and Promising Young Woman is very much about the self-titled good men. There’s the original bad man, rapist Al Monroe, and the sleazy men whose predatory ways Cassie shines a light on – but the main man, if you like, is the so-good Ryan, a university contemporary of Cassie’s who pops up in the coffee shop.
Ryan (Bo Burnham) accepts her when she’s mean, apologises when he screws up, persists without being stalkery. Not only is he a doctor, so we know he’s good — he’s a paediatrician. He cures children! You can’t get much gooder than that. You can imagine what he feels about himself inside. What he sees is himself offering Cassie a route out into the world (Burnham is scarily, um, good as a man who positions himself as a safe harbour as she ventures out). What she sees is a route to justice for Nina.
Mulligan is heartbreakingly vulnerable, all Cassie’s efforts and energy put into low-key revenge until she gets the chance for proper justice. Gradually as she worms her way back into the social group she left behind, she plots how she can force the bystanders and disbelievers to face up to what happened and the situations they too end up in.
Promising Young Woman is funny and shocking, as Cassie forces the people from her past involved in what happened to Nina and its aftermath to face up to what they did. It’s less a triumphant revenge story though and more about guilt and being stuck in a loop of grief, year after year, a situation originally caused by a group of highly privileged white men who never faced justice.
That’s not to say that for the audience her actions aren’t often empowering; each individual confrontation is clever and funny and piercing in what these people reveal. In a meeting with Cassie, university official Dean Walker (Connie Britton), who dealt with Nina’s case at the time, defends not remembering Nina by saying she has one or two cases like this a week. She refuses to join the dots that seven years on, she’s still firefighting assault accusations, because then she’d have to be proactive and threaten the lifestyles of wealthy young men.
The shock twist at the end works well within the film, precisely because Cassie has been so chaotic. It all comes down to chance and shows the nature of justice for women (arbitrary, though more achievable for white women than Black women) through the criminal justice system.
Fennell uses colour as exciting, thrilling and grown up. Cassie is shown as almost childlike, venturing out from her beige world (the safety of beige is a truism now) into a world of colour. Her parents’ house looks dated and lifeless inside; the suitcase they give her is bright pink, a vehicle to take her back out into the world, and away. Colour can also be dangerous, like playing with fire. Towards the end the rainbow hues signify the risks Cassie is taking as she pushes her plans to fruition.
Fennell also understands what women have to navigate in the world and how we cope. The sudden tonal changes work very well; situations are often like that, very funny with danger a background cloud until it overwhelms us. We tell stories about danger with humour so we too don’t have to face up to it, or simply because those situations are so common.
The title, I assume, is a play on words. Nina and Cassie were both promising young women, but also women are often seen as promising something to men by their actions and their outfits, even if they say no.
Read my (very spoilery) article on the ending to Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman is available in the UK on Sky Cinema now. It’s on VOD in the US.
Watch the trailer now: