*Trigger Warning: This review discusses sexual assault briefly.*
Women must navigate a world where most men do not value them. We are objectified daily, whether it is overtly or in a way that we are conditioned to think is normal. Once we become aware of this objectification, how are women meant to enter into relationships with men, especially if men have caused a horrific trauma to them? Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut boldly examines the ways in which men can traumatize women without a second thought, leaving the woman left behind to pick up the pieces of herself. Fennell does this with confidence and without hesitation, creating one of the most difficult films of the past few years as well as a refreshing entry into revenge films.
It begins in a bar late at night, where Cassie (Carey Mulligan) appears to be so wasted that she can’t find her phone and can barely walk. So Jerry (Adam Brody), a stranger out with his friends, graciously offers her a ride home, but ends up coercing her into coming up to his apartment instead. As she appears passed out in his bed, he begins to undress her until she suddenly sits up, clearly completely sober. We never see what she does to him, but it is made clear he will not be assaulting women anymore. The opening scene indicates exactly the type of tone the rest of the film will play out with: brightly colored frames filled with pop music while Cassie teaches men a lesson about taking advantage of women.
It is clear Cassie is suffering from a trauma she experienced in college, but the film takes its time to unpack what exactly happened. This coincides with Cassie trying to rid the streets of predatory men while possibly pursuing her own romance. The issue is that she is stuck because of what happened to her. She can’t be intimate with anybody and only cares about her vendetta against men, trapping her in a time that she is unable to move on from. Promising Young Woman puts Cassie’s trauma at the forefront of her motivations, making the audience empathize with her struggle. This results in a conflicting viewing experience, one where the viewer needs to reconcile with what Cassie is doing while also feeling that she is justified in her actions.
And the film definitely illustrates the reasons for Cassie’s actions — from the small comments men make about women’s appearance to the complete ignorance they offer their peers when they are taking advantage of someone. This is illustrated in troubling ways, but never more graphic than it needs to be to get the message across. Fennell is able to imply many, many disturbing actions, but does so without exploiting anyone’s pain. A film about sexual assault does not need to show every aspect of that; it is in fact much more powerful to see the aftermath, which is what Promising Young Woman succeeds in doing. Furthermore, it is empowering to see a traumatized woman — whose character does not solely rely on her trauma — take back her agency.
Not only does the film explore the complicity of men when it comes to sexual assault, but it also points its lens at women who are complicit in it. Cassie confronts some of the women who ignored what happened in college, attempting to make them feel how she did at the time. The film doesn’t explicitly explore why these women turned a blind eye, but it can be assumed it is due to the way they operate in our patriarchal society that judges women for being drunk before it judges the man who took advantage of them. These parts further contribute to the difficult subject matter, especially through the means by which Cassie attempts to make these women feel what she did.
These unsettling situations are aided by the visuals of the film. A brightly colored palette of pinks, blues, and yellows fill a lot of the production design and costuming. The cinematography also paints a bright picture, giving a false feeling that the audience is watching a comedy or romance movie. Everything seems nice and pretty on the surface, but when you begin to peel back the layers, something is rotting underneath.
This rot is the utter ignorance regarding survivors of sexual assault and the complicity many people play in silencing victims while letting predators walk free. Emerald Fennell has crafted a polarizing film, one that asks the audience to empathize with Cassie’s character even as she does horrible things. It isn’t difficult to get on board with her, but the film takes many turns that might make you question her methods and your own morals. Carey Mulligan as Cassie is something we have never seen before, either as an actor or a character. Promising Young Woman is a difficult watch — one that asks a lot of its viewers while also making decisions that will anger many — while existing as an incredibly powerful and timely film.