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Review: “Promising Young Woman” bites back

Courtesy Focus Features

By Julia Li     1/26/21 10:04pm

Content warning: This piece contains references to sexual assault and suicide.

Review: ★★★★☆

Emerald Fennell’s feminist thriller, “Promising Young Woman,” boldly tackles the idea of consent and stereotypes against women. While the twist ending inevitably remains a topic of controversy for the message it sends to survivors of sexual assault, I admired Fennell’s atypical approach to expose the depth of society’s destructive rape culture. 

The opening scene introduces Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) slouched in the back of a bar with her makeup smeared, head hanging low and skirt askew. Even before any words are spoken, the predatory gazes of men sear through the room, permeating the scene with dread of what’s to come. The men begin making patronizing remarks that are all too familiar: “You know, they put themselves in danger — girls like that.” A man appears to chivalrously offer Cassie a safe ride home before smoothly detouring to his apartment and brings Cassie in for a drink. As the man starts making sexual advances on her, Cassie finally drops her drunken facade and calmly asks in a low voice, “What are you doing?” The man, shocked by her sobriety, immediately leaps back. 

Cassie is a 30-year-old medical school dropout who left after her best friend Nina was sexually assaulted and later committed suicide. Consumed by guilt for not being able to save Nina, Cassie lives with her parents and works as a barista by day, but by night, she performs a nightly ritual of revenge. She transforms herself into an “easy target” for leering men by pretending to be too wasted to walk and adorning herself with revealing clothing and smeared makeup, and without fail, different men approach her nightly under a friendly pretense. The second these self-proclaimed “nice guys” make sexual advances, Cassie snaps out of her feigned drunken stupor and sends the men recoiling and stammering with excuses. Each time Cassie successfully puts a man in his place, she makes a tally in her book, alternating between bloody red and pitch black streaks. 

Cassie’s turbulent mental state is reflected in the film’s distinct color palette, which is often, quite literally, night and day. The coffee shop is a bite of sugar, its brilliant candy-like tones illuminating the coffee shop. The Pepto-pink tones are almost like a double-edged sword, packing a punch as they maintain some kind of eerily saccharine facade. But at the bars and clubs that Cassie inhabits during the night, the color palette dances on the edge of bold fury, dipping into lethal pops of bloody reds. These oscillating color palettes showcase the two worlds that Cassie alternates between, revealing how “in limbo” her life is — she has become ensnared, almost consumed, by her trauma and guilt. 

But Cassie remains trapped in time with good reason. “Promising Young Woman” tiptoes on the edge of a delicate balance between Cassie’s searing fury and the depths of her grief that both fuel her insatiable desire for revenge. Throughout the movie, I began to doubt the integrity of Cassie’s character. I wanted to root for her — and for the majority of the film, I did — but there were certain scenes where I doubted some of her vigilante actions, especially when she willingly puts an innocent young woman in harm’s way to extract her revenge. While I understood Cassie’s cause and her rage, I couldn’t help but wonder — how far is too far? 

Regardless of some of Cassie’s more questionable acts, I still appreciated how the movie took on our society’s toxic rape culture that safeguards its assailants and neglects its survivors. The word “rape” is never once said out loud in the movie, but it nonetheless permeates through the movie, sinking into every nook and cranny. We never get to quite see it, but perhaps that’s the director’s point — to show the bitterness and pain that lingers long after an incident of sexual violence. The film’s title, “Promising Young Woman,” is a clever play on the phrase “promising young man,” which was coined by the judge who sentenced rapist Brock Turner to merely 6 months of jail for his assault on fellow Stanford University student, Chanel Miller. Fennell’s choice in repurposing the term to title her debut film is a powerful move and raises questions — what remains of the women who are pushed to the side in order to preserve a rapist’s “promising” life?  

With its particular focus on rape that happens on campuses, Fennell’s film pushes its audience to consider the role of campus rumors and bystanders, sending a clear message that the bystanders who idly allow sexual crimes to happen and gaslight victims are just as problematic.

While Cassie’s actions sometimes went too far in my opinion, “Promising Young Woman” exposes our society’s incompetence at properly addressing double standards, consent, and sexual violence and sparks long overdue conversations. 

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