Promising Young Woman: Dismantling the image of the “nice guy”
The Times Up and #MeToo movements sprouted a revitalized effort to give topics of sexual assault, harassment, and violence the space they deserve in media. Even though these problems have been present long before social movements forced our society to examine the trauma and brutality thrust upon women, there have been a considerable number of stories that attempt to magnify, challenge, and ultimately change the culture that enables such behavior. Often, these narratives fall into the revenge-thriller genre because of the severity of assault. Promising Young Woman falls into the revenge-thriller bucket and explores the brutally honest truth of rape culture in our world.
At the forefront of this ferocious thriller stands Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year-old medical school dropout consumed with the trauma over the death of her childhood best friend, Nina. While the two friends were at medical school together, Nina was publicly assaulted by a group of fellow med students and subsequently took her own life. By day, Cassie works at a coffee shop and lives with her parents, but, by night, Cassie ventures to local bars and pretends to be extremely intoxicated. Inevitably, a “nice guy” always intervenes to make sure she gets home safe and sound. As you can guess, these men’s intentions are far from good. Even when Cassie persists they stop, they try to advance their actions without clear consent. That is, until Cassie drops the drunk act and catches these men with their jaws on the ground, stumbling over phrases like “I really am a nice guy” and, “I thought we had a connection”. When Cassie runs into old medical school classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham), and learns that Nina’s rapist has returned to the area, her vengeance is shifted towards strange men at bars to the culpable individuals involved in Nina’s assault.
In Promising Young Woman, the guilt does not solely lie with Nina’s rapist Al (Chris Lowell), but with the people that enabled his actions, refused to act, and tried to sweep everything under the rug. There’s the friend who declined to believe Nina was telling the truth (Alison Brie), the medical school dean that brushed away the accusation (Connie Britton), the lawyer who fought to silence Nina (Alfred Molina), and the men that watched the assault take place and laughed, one of them being Al’s best friend Joe (New Girl’s Max Greenfield).
Dismantling the image of the “nice guy” is one of the main goals of Promising Young Woman. It forces the audience to confront the predatory nature of society as a whole and how seemingly upstanding men are also part of that problem. Given the historical nature of men accused and guilty of assault going unpunished or receiving minimal punishment because of their objectively exemplary status (Brock Turner, Brett Kavanaugh, etc.), the film destroys the notion that some men deserve to be exceptions to rape culture. Even the title of the movie proves a point for its play-on the phrase “promising young man”. The casting in Promising Young Woman adds a whole new layer that helps to drill down the goal of tearing down the image of these so called “nice guys”. All the men in the film have generally made a name for themselves in television and film by playing notoriously good men. Almost all the male characters, and some female characters as well, make passive responses to truly horrendous actions. The casualness that they handle sexual assault and its survivors with mirrors how it is treated today. No matter who denies it, there is an unwanted universality of rape culture in our world.
Even though Promising Young Woman explores a heavy subject matter, which survivors of sexual assault will want to be aware of before watching, the movie also utilizes darkly cynical humor which is effectively amusing as it is necessary. Director Emerald Fennell delicately balances the weight of the serious issue at hand with entertaining and sharp storytelling. Fennell does not shy away from the truth or violence in the film but also chooses not to show Nina’s assault, exhibiting her unwillingness to visualize depictions of sexual violence for mere shock value. She is intentional in her choices and never loses sight of the message at hand.
The majority of the film shows Cassie consumed with revenge and on fire with rage. Her vigilantism can almost be compared to an addiction, as she stops at nothing to bring justice to the guilty parties. For a point, Cassie’s mindset starts to shift as develops a romance with Ryan, but she returns to her main objective no matter what it ends up costing her. Since the theme of Promising Young Women circulates around revenge, it prompts the age-old debate of the consequences of retaliation. We want Cassie to succeed, but also do not want her to get hurt in the process. Many characters in the film peg Cassie as a psycho, to which at one point she responds “You know what? I honestly don’t think I am”. And she is not. Nina was Cassie’s best friend, and she takes on Nina’s trauma to the point where we associate the two as a singular entity, even though Nina is deceased. She goes as far as wearing a half-heart necklace branded with Nina’s name. In the end, Cassie uproots her life in memory of Nina, no matter the repercussions she faces.
Promising Young Women is a bold and polarizing look into guilt, power, and retribution. It airs on the more pessimistic side than optimistic. While the end of the film feels dismal, it shows the harm that sexual assault brings to the lives of survivors and victims and their loved ones. A perfect line to summarize the film comes near the end when Nina’s rapist tells Cassie that “It’s every man’s worst nightmare, getting accused of something like that” to which Cassie responds, “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”.