How do you make a revenge film about the #MeToo movement? That’s the question posed by Emerald Fennell’s brilliant debut, which follows a medical school dropout who sets out to avenge her best friend’s sexual assault and subsequent suicide when they were both at college. We first meet Cassie Thomas, played by Carey Mulligan, in the midst of her weekly revenge kick – acting drunk at a bar, waiting for a man to take her home (and attempt to take advantage of her) and then snapping back into sobriety right when he has bypassed consent. During these early scenes, Fennell takes us from a frat bro, played by Adam Brody, to a sensitive type, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who quotes David Foster Wallace to Cassie, and laments the need for makeup, before taking advantage of her just as eagerly. In both cases, Fennell brilliantly punctures the supposed ambiguity of consent, since Cassie draws on a massive inventory of signals, signs and cues, which all say one clear thing – “no.”
While this seems to give Cassie some closure in her day-to-day life, it’s only when she hooks up with Ryan Cooper, another student from med school, played by Bo Burnham, that her revenge starts to take on some focus. Before this point, her activities with men have felt like a part of her post-traumatic disorder, a way of dealing with the void left in her life by her friend Nina’s suicide – and the failure of the university and justice system to account for her assault. When she meets Ryan, however, she’s immediately galvanised by hearing that Al Monroe, the main perpetrator of Nina’s assault, is about to get married. Not only that – he’s also built an incredibly successful medical practice in anaesthesiology, and has remained tight with his medical colleagues and professors. By all accounts, he’s made it, and is invulnerable, which sharpens Cassie’s need for revenge, and gets the main events of the script in motion.
During its first two acts, Promising Young Woman experiments with three main modes in which rape-and-revenge has typically been figured in mainstream American cinema. Unsurprisingly, the first is the rape-and-revenge thriller, which flourished in the 1970s (and then again during the grindhouse revival of the 2000s) as a kind of nadir of horror spectacle. While this might be the most obvious antecedent of Promising Young Woman, it’s also discarded the most rapidly – partly because we never actually see Nina get assaulted. In fact, the whole point of the film is that nobody at the time (apparently) saw Nina get assaulted, since even the men who were standing around watching, and even the “friends” who circulated the video that was made of the event, denied ever seeing anything. Rather than presenting assault as a lurid spectacle, Promising Young Woman is more interested in the way assault is constituted as something that refuses to be seen by the public and the justice system at large, meaning that it can be reduced to a mere matter of perception management.
In a sense, this perception management is what Cassie seeks to correct, which brings us to the two other archetypes of her revenge – the vigilante and the slasher. While Carrie draws on both of these figures, she can’t fully identify with them either, since both ultimately function, in American cinema, as arbiters of the very patriarchal order she is taking revenge against. That’s considerably simpler in the case of the vigilante, who nearly always satisfies a cathartic need for uninhibited male action in a world that (supposedly) inhibits it. Vigilante movies ultimately arrogate victimhood as the exclusive province of men, even or especially when women are the actual people harmed, so it doesn’t quite work as an optic for Cassie. In fact, many of the people Cassie takes on feel like nascent vigilantes – most starkly when she simply stops her car in the middle of an empty road, as if to experiment with just how long it takes for a misplaced woman to engender vigilantistic misogyny in the most public of spaces.
In some ways, the slasher is the most sophisticated of the three figures that Fennell draws upon, so it makes sense that it’s also the most pervasive in Promising Young Woman. Slashers tend to be scariest when they return the audience’s gaze unexpectedly, and when they shift from inanimate to animate objects. That’s just how Cassie’s revenge works during her nights out with men – the uncanny moment when she shifts from a drunken to a sober gaze, suddenly returning to consciousness at the critical few seconds when consent is traversed. In a sense, her predators involute the slasher logic, since they see her as inanimate, and indeed need this to forgo her consent, but are then terrified when her gaze is suddenly enlivened. These moments, when Cassie’s voice and face “wake up,” are some of the eeriest in the film.
For that reason, the slasher ethos dominates the aesthetic of the film, which tends to skew towards the 80s, the decade when slashers were most vital in negotiating the male gaze in cinema. For all her autonomy, Cassie is framed as an aesthetic object in the same way as many 80s female leads – or perhaps consciously styles herself that way, to lure men into reducing her to a repository for the male gaze. The film is entirely driven by pastels, with pink as the dominant palette (Carrie gets a pink suitcase for her birthday), but it’s an unusual pink – halfway between millennial pink and 80s pink, just as Cassie is consciously adopting a certain cinematic register to draw in her targets. You might say she exposes toxic masculinity by presenting herself as a John Hughes girl, surrounded by fluffy pastries at work and chintzy décor at home, buried beneath a plethora of bouffant, frills, flowers, bows and ribbons that seem to offer the female body as a familiar resting-place for our eyes, only for the film to awaken, shift and meet our gaze with the same unsettling transparency as Cassie does herself.
Beyond a certain point, however, Fennell can’t identify too closely with this slasher ethos either, since the slasher was ultimately as much a regulatory figure as the rape-and-revenge film or the vigilante. While the slasher tended to emerge in households and suburbs without fathers, he also replaced those fathers, identifying with their paternal purview, but to a monstrous degree. Only by removing fathers, and installing the slasher in their place, could 80s horror films come to terms with the waning of a male gaze that had sustained cinema for decades. Although the slasher took the paternal and patriarchal optics of Hollywood cinema to a kind of monstrous dead end, he was still ultimately bound by that optic in the last resort.
By contrast, Fennell opts for a languorous, leisurely, laidback model of revenge – a revenge that can only operate by eschewing precisely the decisive action of the vigilante and slasher, and a revenge so original that Cassie has to become a kind of director to even envisage it. Before we even get to that point, Cassie, and Fennell, surround themselves with an eerie hush, a pregnant calm that functions as a space of possibility more than a regular narrative device. One of the great signatures of Promising Young Woman is its silences – the moments when Cassie, and Fennell, seem to be thinking through how to conceive of revenge against an entity that has been entirely naturalised by the very cinematic language they’re living in. At times, this reminded me of the eerie calm that directors often attach to serial killers before they’re caught – the sense of a potential for action and agency that can never quite be contained by any subsequent narrative, containment or capture. In one of the most powerful scenes, Cassie envisages a world where female serial killers are the norm, and forces a man to envisage it too. Genuinely glimpsing that possibility is one of the hallmarks of her revenge.
After creating this hush, this emergent possibility, Cassie settles into the main part of her revenge – dealing with the infrastructure that failed Nina, from their mutual best friend, played by Alison Brie, to the Dean of their university, played by Connie Britton, to Al’s lawyer, played by Alfred Molina. Rather than take revenge through action, Cassie uses action to continue the gaze-shifting of her earlier exploits, crafting tableaux that denaturalise the accepted narrative around Nina’s assault by putting the enablers in Nina’s position, whether directly or vicariously. At times, these tableaux necessitate kitsch in their efforts to counter migogynist realism, and the equation of realism with misogyny, producing a series of incredible set pieces that take full advantage of Carey Mulligan’s inherent mercuriality. In many ways, you can imagine her more in the role of victim, since she often thrives in more passive parts, but Fennell draws out her full range here, resulting in a remarkably emergent performance – a space of possibility rather than a stable character in the conventional sense.
It’s telling that Al’s lawyer, played by Molina, begs Cassie to play the role of the conventional vigilante, or slasher, and act upon his body, or even kill him, to effect her revenge. Yet she doesn’t give him that possibility for empty ceremonial catharsis, since the film is uninterested in belated displays of sympathy, and sceptical of performative sincerity. When Cassie discovers, to her horror, that Ryan was a party to the assault, there’s no interest in understanding, contextualising or accommodating his explanation, just as there’s no interest in humanising his dismay at having been found out. Both men clarify that the real target of Promising Young Woman is liberal migosyny – misogyny that is woke to the #MeToo movement but still carries along on its merry way, not unlike the David Foster Wallace acolyte and makeup-decrying “gentleman” of the opening scenes. At the same time, Promising Young Woman is especially sceptical of liberal misogyny, or woke misogyny, as a cinematic register, where, as Cassie puts it, “you might be surprised to find that gentleman are often the worst.”
This is quite a radical prospect from Promising Young Woman, since its severs Cassie from the types of patriarchal continuity that revenge is normally designed to restore in mainstream American cinema. It’s no coincidence that Ryan forms a connection between Cassie’s past (her time at med school) and her potential future as a wife and mother (he’s a pediatrician), since his complicity in the assault makes it clear that justice, as Fennell and Cassie understand it, can’t take place within these recognisable social structures, or within the linear social narrative prescribed for women. There is no way for Cassie to properly exist in the present, which means that she’s prepared to die for her revenge – and, incredibly, she does, showing up at Al’s buck’s night in a nurse’s uniform, and confronting him with Nina’s rape, before he manages to suffocate her, and then burn and conceal her body, with the help of his best man.
This is quite a stunning gesture from Fennell, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it speaks beautifully to the perceived belatedness of assault claims – the unspoken assumption that there should be an emotional statute of limitations, and that assaults of a certain age should remain in the past, despite the plethora of research on the lifelong impacts of assault. Knowing that Nina’s crime will always be reduced to a patina of pastness – and was already reduced to that same pastness the moment it happened – Carrie crafts a crime whose presentness is undeniable, turning herself into a missing person to capture the discursive absence around Nina’s death. In order to occupy a place that can’t be spoken, she destroys her own voice in the most dramatic way – and it is here that her gesture of over-identifying with the system she’s critiquing recalls the slasher mode, although in a radically different way.
At the same time, Cassie’s willingness to be a victim to murder takes the edge off the idea that Nina, and herself, are “mere” victims – that they have arrogated victimhood to themselves in a tasteless or flippant way, which is often the criticism made of feminism by misogynistic commentators. By literally turning herself into a homicide victim, Cassie punctures this rhetoric, at least in her immediate circle, while also forcing Al, and his own toxic circle of friends, to embody their own proclivity for victimhood in the most abject way.
Yet the contrast between the grim spectacle of Cassie’s body, and the perky messages she schedules for the next day, also suggest something more optimistic – a synthetic feminism, an undead feminism, that inhabits the digital world as much as the corporeal body. In this sense, Promising Young Woman seems to gesture beyond feminism to a trans sensibility, suggesting that only with the addition of trans women to women can we truly break the structures that seem so inextricable during parts of Fennell’s film. It’s no coincidence that Laverne Cox plays Cassie’s best friend, since by the end Cassie also seems to have embraced a transitional identity, dispersing herself across a series of perky screens and transcending the body that only exists, in these last scenes, as canvas for the most callous misogynist violence.
This process coincides with Al’s wedding, which takes all the pastel tones of the film to their logical conclusion, but also collapses the wedding in on itself, transforming it into a testament to the expendable female bodies left its wake rather than an event with any inherent gravitas of its own. And, in the most inspired musical choice of the film, Fennell uses a stirring rendition of “Something Wonderful,” from The King and I, to make this transition. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, this song comes just after the King of Siam refuses to give Anna Leonowens a home of her own, as he had promised when she agreed to come and tutor his children. In her only solo song, the King’s head wife assures Anna that she should always respect the King’s whims because his very inconsistency and stubbornness is in itself “something wonderful.” But the song doesn’t quite resonate here, as Cassie, and Fennell, like Anna, insist on their right to a home, a house, a place for themselves – even if it involves turning the entire fabric of the story in on itself, and destroying the film, to eventually do so.