Rape revenge movies are always going to be divisive experiences...
...Where some may find catharsis, others may see little more than a mean spirit or pointless exploitation. Where some may find escapism, others may see a confrontation with reality that’s difficult to face. Making these kinds of movies appealing to a wide audience is a monumentally difficult task, and one that requires an incredibly finely tuned understanding of the film you want to make and the story you want to tell. Writer-director Emerald Fennel’s debut film Promising Young Woman is easily one of the most divisive movies of the year for the way it tells its story, but it is also acutely aware of itself. Tread carefully, survivors. This film has potential to be incredibly triggering.
The rape revenge genre is one of my favorites, especially when the stories are told by women. There are so many different ways to articulate that kind of trauma, the methods of revenge, and the psychology of every character involved in the story that it feels like an endlessly rich field to explore. Promising Young Woman is one of the more unique entries I’ve seen, in that it does not aim for catharsis in quite the same way as most others in the genre. Carey Mulligan’s Cassie is icy and boiling all at once through every moment of the film, which is itself a razor’s edge to balance on. Watching it, for me, was a bit of a push-pull experience. Its aesthetic and imagined goal are enticing, but I found some elements of it to be uncomfortably repulsive the deeper the story progressed. Not because it was poorly made, but because it is so sharp in its attacks against Cassie’s targets.
Cassie is a woman out for revenge. Adrift in mourning the loss of her lifelong best friend Nina after a horrific tragedy, she ventures out to bars at night and lures men into thinking she’s drunk, only to enact vengeance when they realize, somewhere amid the seduction, she was never drunk at all. Only a predator of her own kind, waiting for men to reveal their true motivations. In the daylight she works at a coffee shop where, one day, her past comes crashing into her, setting off a series of events that culminate in a whirlwind of intricately planned, individualized traps for each person responsible in one way or another for Nina’s death. What unfolds is a candy-coated labyrinth of trauma and revenge, forever coursing with a darkness underneath that never lets you forget what the real stakes at work are.
Promising Young Woman is a weapon of mass destruction painted in soft, feminine colors. Every single element, from casting to costumes to set design, is specifically chosen to lure the audience into a false sense of security and twist it on us. I have a complex relationship, on a personal level, with the movie and some of its choices, and it is an undeniably uncomfortable and difficult film to watch as a survivor. But for others it’s a window into seeing themselves and their experiences in a way they hadn’t before, and for that I think it is at the very least an important piece of work. On a technical, aesthetic level, PYW is both beautiful and violent in every act. The special features offered on the Blu-Ray are, for the most part, short and sweet examinations of Emerald Fennel’s mission in crafting a story of revenge unlike anything else out there. Each of them explores the intentionality behind the casting and costume design specifically which, if like me you get too wrapped up in the story to connect the dots on, offer an impressive level of understanding to Fennel’s ultimate goal. The director’s commentary is perhaps the most valuable and in-depth feature and gave me a level of appreciation for the film I didn’t necessarily have before. Emerald Fennel entered this story with purpose, and her explanations for things like Cassie’s costume choices mirroring each of her targets’ comfortable environments and the motivation for casting predominantly comedic actors in a film with such an intensely dark core prove that she takes her work seriously.
Some of the most fascinating parts of the commentary, for me, were the moments in between. The moments when even Fennel was at a sort of loss for words over how things play out. Promising Young Woman is a markedly cruel film in about as many ways as it is possible to be. Cassie’s methods for revenge are at times unduly harsh, and the film’s third act is one of its most divisive moments. Emerald Fennel never makes excuses for her, however. She knows and explains to us that Cassie makes choices that traumatize others and herself, and that those choices are cruel in ways we do not necessarily expect. Cassie, and the film as a whole, is innocent-looking but incredibly dangerous. We never know for sure which way things will turn, and every moment of comfort is punctuated by a whip-crack of lingering darkness. Fennel frequently labels Cassie, both visually and over commentary, as PYW’s avenging angel, so it is funny to hear her say the song choice in the film’s final moments (Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning”) was one made after a series of other choices were rejected. It is notably the only moment where Cassie’s angelic status is not directly acknowledged as a factor.
Promising Young Woman is many things; easy isn’t one of them. Emerald Fennel explains it as six genres, six paths for Cassie’s life, all wrapped into one. It will feel different ways for different people and is a unique example of the disparate responses people have to films that articulate revenge in unconventional ways. To Fennel and everyone involved, the point of this movie is to present an honest picture of what typically happens in situations like Cassie and Nina’s. Even armed with that knowledge it can at times feel more mean-spirited than necessary, and to people who don’t necessarily deserve that level of intensity. The ultimate arc of Cassie’s story is difficult to swallow even as it plays—at times to an almost repulsive degree. But after taking the experience as a whole, commentary and all, it seems even this is intentional on Fennel’s part. We’re meant to be uncomfortable virtually every moment we watch and are never allowed to look away from the violence or threat of it. This is reality, she says, and we have to bear witness if we want to know the story.
Promising Young Woman comes to DVD and Blu-Ray from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment March 16th. Check out the special features below!
By Katelyn Nelson
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