by Jessica Freedman
Content warning: This review contains spoilers for Promising Young Woman. This review also contains discussions of rape and violence. Please be cautious if you are sensitive to those issues.
Recently released for public viewing, Promising Young Woman (directed by Emerald Fennell) holds a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and features performances by admired actors, such as Laverne Cox, Bo Burnham, and Carey Mulligan. Despite the trailers for the film setting it up to be a fun feminist revenge piece and the buzz around its release making it sound like a guaranteed success, it has garnered some controversy surrounding its grim and sometimes violent content. Those who dislike the film have even gone so far as to call it “filth.”
The film deals with the story of 30-year-old Cassie, an ex-medical student, who spends her days working at a run-down coffee shop and her nights pretending to be drunk and scaring the men who try to take advantage of her. As the story progresses, it is revealed that she dropped out of medical school following the rape and suicide of her best friend, Nina. There is graphic violent content in the film and it is important to be aware of and prepared for that. The graphic content is also what has spurred the variety of criticisms of Promising Young Woman.
A large amount of the controversy has arguably arisen due to poor marketing decisions. The trailer for Promising Young Woman features an instrumental version of Britney Spears’ Toxic and a heavy implication that Cassie murders the men who seek to take advantage of her. Along with the bold neon lighting and confident voiceover, the trailer sets the audience up for an empowering revenge-filled film about killing rapist men.
This is not what this film is about. Promising Young Woman is not about how fun it would be to kill rapists. Instead, the focus of the film is a woman whose life was destroyed by the rape and subsequent death of her best friend and the grief it caused her. The movie is a stunning portrayal of the intensity of female friendship and the depth of grief. It also excels at presenting a complex female character. Unfortunately, many of those positive elements have been overshadowed by audience members’ shock regarding the unexpected violence in the film.
This is not the first time a woman-centred film has fallen victim to bad marketing and an audience who expected something the film was not offering. Diablo Cody and Karen Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body received widespread criticism and poor reviews when it first premiered in 2009 because of it being primarily marketed to teenage boys. In the same way Jennifer’s Body was marketed as something more light-hearted than it truly turned out to be, so was Promising Young Woman.
Some of the more specific controversy the film has faced surrounds the actions Cassie takes against the women who did not take Nina’s rape seriously. These women include Elizabeth Walker, Dean of the university where Nina was raped, and Madison, a friend of both Cassie and Nina who thought Nina was lying. In Cassie’s desperation to force them to acknowledge the trauma Nina had been through, Cassie sets up plans to psychologically punish them. Dean Walker’s punishment involves Cassie telling the Dean that her daughter had been left at the dormitory previously occupied by the men who had raped Nina and taunting Dean Walker as she becomes steadily more distraught. Meanwhile, Cassie actually dropped off the Dean’s daughter at a diner under the pretence that her favourite celebrities would be there.
For Madison, Cassie invited her to lunch and got her drunk, then hired a man to take her into a hotel room and make it seem like they had slept together. In both cases, the punishment was psychological. Despite that, these actions have garnered controversy with many viewers denouncing them as un-feminist and criticizing Cassie’s use of the threat of sexual violence as a form of punishment.
Critiquing Cassie’s actions as un-feminist only truly makes sense if Cassie was intended to represent feminist values. The reality of the story is that Cassie was stricken with grief and could not think of any other way to force people to acknowledge what had happened to Nina. Never in the film is the audience expected to view Cassie as a morally pure character. Her actions are clearly shown to be extreme and fueled by grief. Again, this controversy can be partially blamed on audiences being given false expectations for what the movie really is about.
The scene that has sparked the most controversy is Cassie’s death. When she tries to carve Nina’s name into the man who raped her, he breaks free from his restraints and smothers Cassie to death in an agonizing, two-minute-long scene. The criticisms of this scene range from it seeming like the film is saying death and destruction is inevitable for sexual assault survivors to the fact that the scene can be triggering and hard to watch.
In the context of the film, however, Cassie’s death makes a lot of sense. Throughout the movie, her behaviour escalates as she seeks out the people involved in Nina’s rape. It was almost disappointing to see her getting closer to Ryan, her love interest, because it seemed like she was about to abandon Nina for a man. It would have been nice if she did turn her life for the better because of love, but it would not have made sense. It is untrue that survivors cannot heal from their trauma, but Cassie was on a path that made her death, in many ways, inevitable.
There are many ways the film could be improved. Trigger warnings should have been included. The film was obviously not what many audience members expected or wanted. Survivors of sexual assault and rape deserve films that depict them building lives for themselves after grief, but that was not this film. A book that does depict hope after sexual assault is Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. But, overall, Promising Young Woman did a really good job of portraying a complex, grieving, and angry woman.