How Promising Young Woman subverts the revenge thriller
Promising Young Woman plays its trick three times; twice in the opening twenty minutes, and a third time in the film’s final act.
It is first deployed on the unsuspecting man ferrying an intoxicated Carey Mulligan back to their flats under the guise of chivalry, before further plying her with drink and attempting to fuck her. The turn is a satisfying one, with Adam Brody’s faux concerned nice guy slowly revealing himself as an opportunist predator, only for Mulligan to snap out of her performance as his head dips between her legs. She’s caught him out, a well practised script-flip developed over the past seven years. Cue opening titles.
What she does with the power she grants herself in that moment isn’t immediately clear. I was betrayed by my first thought: physical violence. She must hurt them. It’s what they deserve. It’s that kind of film. Right? It isn’t until her next sting operation, when a red-pilled McLovin’ gets caught knuckle deep inside her — she always lets them cross her physical boundaries before springing her trap — that we understand that the gotcha is the thing. It’s about catching the nice guy in his own bullshit, his tepid response and cornered weasel anger — how dare you make me reckon with myself! — only further highlighting her point: yes, all men.
It’s no mistake that writer/director Emerald Fennell casts teen idol Seth Cohen as Cassie’s first mark, and perennial teen movie punchline Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the second. It’s also no mistake that these men are ciphers, flat objects with ugly surfaces and little hidden or implied underneath. They are finance bros and chan-site incels, two-dimensional caricatures of hash-tag-bad-men, written as scarcely as any female one night stand in a bro-comedy, deployed — and summarily destroyed — in order to quickly win over the audience. The men, too.
Like the killer in a lesser slasher film finally bumping off the annoying teens, you want to see Mulligan’s Cassandra get these guys. It’s easy catharsis. For the women that have met these men, and for the men so relieved that they aren’t like that. It’s a clever piece of misdirection on Fennell’s part. It lets you off the hook. You relax. This isn’t about you.
A good film teaches you how to watch it, and in Promising Young Woman, Fennell works a long con. She teaches you how she’s going to trick you.
The first time the trick is deployed is to show us how it works. See, it says. Here are the strings. Here’s the hidden door. Here’s where I hide the bunny rabbit. The second time is a repeat performance so you can see the trick in motion now you know the secret. Now you’re in on it. It’s a shot of dopamine, designed to make you feel clever. You’re waiting for the punchline to drop, for the poor-old patsy to look stupid. You’re waiting to feel superior.
The third time the film plays its trick — subverting expectation with a wholly convincing performance — it’s on us, the audience. When it shifts, when the story snaps out of it’s playfully tipsy character and forces you to reckon with both yourself and what it’s saying, it’s hard to grasp what is happening. But, you say. But… But nothing. We were the marks the whole time. Like Lindsay Crouse in House of Games, or Nic Cage in Matchstick Men, we knew the rules and bought the con anyway. Because we wanted to believe.
The set-up is well worked, trading on cinematic cliché to make sure you miss the strings, the bunny up the sleeve. It traffics in the visual language, tropes, and tunes of teen comedies, from the candy coated wardrobes of Clueless to the dark humour of Heathers to the pop soundtracks of John Hughes, an aesthetic that perhaps never existed IRL, but feels like it should have because we grew up watching it on screens. Like MAGA and other shared delusions, it’s nostalgia for a time we assume we lived through, despite the only evidence being fictional. It’s hyper-reality. It’s Pastel Punk.
Like Napoleon Dynamite, it is a film out of place and out of time. This is any city, at almost any time during the past few decades, cell phones aside. The Spice Girls play amongst Paris Hilton, Charlie XCX and an orchestral rendition of Britney Spears’ Toxic; Cassie’s Parent’s house is decorated by the year 1981 and preserved in plastic. Suburbs bleed into cityscapes. It’s neither here nor there. It’s everywhere. And this is how it’s always been.
Cassie’s performance isn’t just on the nights she’s out playing drunk, or when she’s artfully smearing her “blowjob lips” make-up, learned from an internet tutorial. It’s a permanent role; an on-going, seven-year performance, visible in every outfit choice, every scene. All carefully curated — from pout to pigtails to books-as-props— in order to sell the fantasy. It’s innocence as cos-play, and hyper-femininity as armour. If you’re going to gaze, she’ll give you something to gaze at. A predator disguised as prey; a she-wolf in sex kitten clothing.
Mulligan is a walking Oscar nomination here, playing the stuck-in-time Cassandra with such a level of control she can, in a micro-expression, let the light in the room catch the cracks in her veneer, and with an imperceptible shift, vanish them again in an instant. It’s not immediately clear how much understanding Cassie has of her forever twenty-one time warp — whether the performer is in on the act — a question that isn’t settled until the denouement. But Mulligan is in no doubt about what she’s doing, doling out quips and vigilante justice with both a swagger and a sense of weariness; living for the game and tired that she still has to play it.
The early encounters with opportunist rapists ape the language of the second round of Me Too, with dialogue seemingly lifted directly from Twitter, a familiar shorthand designed to build an easy rapport, to lull you into a false sense of having seen this all already — of knowing how this will play out. Once she’s ushered us through the feminism 101 bullet points, however, Fennell elevates the conversation, using that basic foundation to build a far deeper and more literate commentary on our post-Me Too world.
She casts Tumblr’s boyfriend Bo Burnham as Cassie’s suitor, as lanky as he is unthreatening, here to charm her out of her pants and almost out of her arrested development. The film you thought you were watching — exploitation-style revenge-porn with a wink and a cherry-red pout — morphs into meet-cute-rom-com with a side of vigilantism, child kidnap and all.
But Cassie’s trauma runs deep, as deep as her guilt, her depression. So the opportunity to avenge her best friend, Nina, raped by a privileged frat boy who was never arrested or charged or held accountable by law enforcement, institutions or peers — and who presumably died by suicide — was only something she could avoid for so long, if only due to the remaining run time.
Burnham, something of a break out despite his previous success in stand-up and filmmaking, lets his mask slip slowly then all at once, flying his true colours — cowardice, complicity, misogyny — loud and proud when Cassie confronts him about witnessing the rape. His only concern is himself, his reputation. He’s no different to the men Cassie gotcha’d. He was just a better actor, his performance only failing at the last. Cue uncomfortable seat-shuffle from the men in the audience. Our last surrogate, exposed. Yes, all men.
Alas, the show must go on. The performance more entrenched. The pop culture casting continues at the Batchelor party finale, with Piz from “Veronica Mars” and Schmidt from “New Girl” employed as the Brock Turner-esque rapist and his rape tape director/consigliare, respectively. Bros, yes, but more than that. These are familiar faces. Men we’ve laughed with, men we’ve cared about. These are our friends. Better the bro you know.
In her wig and nurse’s outfit, Cassie manages to channel both Heath Ledger’s Joker and Harley Quinn, using the language of pop psychopathy and girl-empowerment, it looks a lot like the film we thought we were getting, an iconic-we-can’t-help-but-stan moment ripped straight from the trailer. This is it. We are ready to clap and hoot and holler and cheer. Go get ’em, Cassie.
And so we come to the last trick. The third and final turn. With everything in place for Cassie’s final performance, her ultimate revenge — Fennell dares to rips catharsis away from us.
With one horrible scream and the snap of a handcuff chain, the script is flipped again — the tables turned on Cassie, on us — as Piz takes his upper hand and suffocates Cassie with it, the camera unflinching for several agonising minutes as she struggles and shudders and gasps and claws and finally goes limp, and we realise, just as slowly, what we’ve been watching: A long con. Like Seth Cohen and McLovin’, we bought the narrative we were presented with. The set-up is slightly different, yes. We weren’t trying to assault Cassie, but we were willing her to do our bidding.
Our fates are the same: Gotcha.
It’s a moment ripped straight from “Game of Thrones” — The Red Viper vs The Mountain, the people’s champion versus the impossible arm of power. The smaller man never stood a chance, but he did just enough to make us believe, right up to the moment his eyeballs were pushed through the back of his skull.
But where “Thrones” cast a literal mountain as the man who felled our champion, our heroine here has succumbed under the weight of a man so pathetic it hardly seems possible. She was a badass. She was strong. More than strong; she was powerful. But not powerful enough. What Fennell understands, what Cassie apparently failed to, is that the game is rigged. No matter how strong, how righteous, women can’t win.
A man may fall here and there, but the structures of power can weather a few hits. There is room in the fabric of reality for a little movement, a momentary elasticity, but that fabric will always snap back to its former shape. Men will protect men. Power will protect power. There will always be a Dean Walker there to shepherd good boys from harm, there will always be a police detective to comically defer to a man in a position of authority, there will always be a Schmidtty to help burn the body and give a post-murder pep talk.
And so it ends. Another woman is dead. The men win. We sit shell-shocked waiting for the credits to roll. But Fennell has one last move. A denouement. A prestige, if you will. It’s not enough to disappear the bunny. You’ve got to bring it back.
What this hasn’t taken into account, thus far, is Cassie’s mental health. Depressed, wrought from PTSD, misshapen and reformed by guilt and grief. Lost to time and trauma. Her level of control the only thing keeping her together. But a controlled fall is still a fall, and she’s been falling for seven years. Perhaps she died with Nina. Or perhaps the last vestiges of her were snuffed out when the man she fell for was revealed as complicit in her friend’s rape.
Either way, her demise was planned for. And what reads to some as cruel on the part of the filmmakers reads to me as suicide on the part of the character. Unlike the killers in sub-par slashers, she didn’t go to the cabin to terrorise the terrible teens. Cassie went to the cabin to die. Suicide by man. Her pain, finally over. His just beginning. Two birds, one pillow.
It’s a jarring moment for a film that dealt with female trauma and a dead woman so delicately: Nina’s death was kept as personal and respectful as Cassie’s was sensational and provocative. A brutal end, but a fitting one, at least in the confines of what we’ve been shown. Of the rules of the game. The world. Our world. Perhaps it’s a slice of realism far too real for a revenge fantasy. But dead women have been a source of entertainment for as long as men have been killing them.
“You killed the stripper? What is this, the ‘90s?” Schmidt says after finding Cassie’s body, a line so good I want it to spit in my coffee. This was always about revenge, but it was never a fantasy. It’s not that kind of film. It’s not that kind of world. Not so long ago we made films where the stripper being killed was considered a fun opening scene in a comedy.
When Fennell does it, the trope is not narrative laziness; it’s a taunt. Where once Hollywood expected us to laugh at dead women, she’s daring us to. It’s a moment of levity at our expense, not Cassie’s. Dead strippers are funny, right? Are you not entertained?
Cassie’s death is a shock, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The clues are all there, both in this film and the century of cinema before it.
“I really thought for a second it was all going to be okay,” Cassie tells Burnham’s Ryan earlier in the film, her fall accelerating by the second. We did too. Fennell and Mulligan manage to take us right to the edge of that promise — let us taste it, smell it, touch it — before the misdirect lands.
A good film teaches you how to watch it. A great film makes you question what you thought you knew. Promising Young Woman is that kind of film.