‘Promising Young Woman’ Isn’t A Revenge Fantasy, It’s A Disorienting Tragedy

A stark reality check comes from this funny, sharp, devastating, scathing masterpiece.

*** Major spoilers ahead for “Promising Young Woman”

You’ve likely seen the colorful, wickedly funny promo material for “Promising Young Woman” while scrolling through your Instagram feed. The trailer leads us to believe women are empowered enough to laugh in the face of would-be rapists and kick their asses. But the film solidifies the darkest truths about rape culture and misogyny, forcing us to gaze into wounds we thought were closed. “Promising Young Woman” is uncomfortable and disturbing, heartbreaking and witty, darkly fantastic and painfully realistic, and bubblegum and blood all at once. 

Cassie, the main character, is cunning and mysterious, working in a coffee shop by day and luring would-be rapists to their reckoning by night. We slowly learn that Cassie’s feminist vigilante persona is fueled by her desire to avenge her deceased friend, Nina, who was raped by another student named Al Monroe during their time at school. Both Nina and Cassie dropped out, while Al went on to graduate and lead a successful life. Cassie has three main victims to avenge: a female classmate who didn’t believe Nina, a female Dean who did nothing to discipline Al, and Al, who raped her best friend. Throughout this rollercoaster ride of revenge, Cassie learns that her love interest, Ryan, was present during the rape, laughing and encouraging Al. What follows is the final act in her revenge scheme, but not the way you’d ever expect.

As the credits rolled, I felt my insides turning, my hands shaking and the tears welling up inside me. My heart was pounding and I thought I might throw up. When it was over, my fiancé turned to me and asked what I thought. She seemed rather unaffected, and that only fueled the intensity of my emotions. I tried to compose myself, but I burst out crying and couldn’t stop.  

The way a seemingly innocuous encounter can turn sinister and you can’t quite put your finger on why, this film lulls you into a clever feminist revenge fantasy and leaves you breathless with reckoning and grief.  The only other time I’ve ever felt this way was after viewing the traveling theater production of “Steubenville.” 

“Steubenville” is the true story of the first live-tweeted rape in America. The most terrifying part of “Steubenville” is that it is a rereading of the trial, a real, accurate depiction of what happened to the nameless girl who was raped on camera, blamed, shamed, and made infamous. She can’t escape what happened to her, but the boys who did the raping and the filming fade back to their own lives, likely having wives they love and that love them and maybe even daughters they love, too. If it weren’t for the national attention to the case and for the acclaimed production thereafter they might entirely forget that night all together. After all, it was just fun, right? 

A few weeks ago, my best friends and I were joking around that if we weren’t gay, we’d probably be dead in a ditch by now with how recklessly we party. It’s funny, because we have twisted and dark senses of humor, but I’ve truly never worried about going home with a random woman. I’ve never worried that she will rape me, or that she won’t respect me, or that she will tell everyone what a whore I am. I’ve never really even been around enough men for them to gang-rape me as I usually drink with lesbians waxing poetic about Andrea Gibson or fervently discussing our mental illnesses or making politically incorrect jokes. I have truly never thought about a woman violently harming me (that’s my personal experience and I recognize that isn’t true for all queer women). 

My deepest fear on a date is that the girl will like anime or hate Lana Del Rey; if I was straight, I wonder what my fear would be. Or maybe I wouldn’t be afraid, because most of the men I know are exceptional. It’s one thing when you think of rapists as evil, foaming at the mouth aggressors beating women, but it’s another when they are “good.”

In “Promising Young Woman,” Cassie reconnects with Ryan, a nerdy and likable former classmate from med school and cautiously falls in love with him. I didn’t want Ryan to be bad — and maybe he’s not. 

It’s revealed that Nina’s rape was filmed on a cell phone to the backdrop of laughter and egging on. I feared that if Ryan ended up being in the video, the film wouldn’t stand its ground as a comment on rape culture, but a SCUM manifesto dressed up in pink and clever jokes. It would be too easy for menimists to critique — oh look, the feminist film is saying all men are bad, no exceptions and no nuance.

But the writers of “Promising Young Woman” are too smart — too talented for that. Instead, this reveal makes room for the most real and uncomfortable nuance of them all. Ryan is good. He loves Cassie. He respects her. He has really good taste in music since he knows all the lyrics to Paris Hilton’s grotesquely underrated masterpiece “Stars Are Blind.” 

All of that still exists, and yet, he laughed at a rape while others watched and filmed. Where is the line between two things that can be true at once, and someone who is just evil? Are they evil if they don’t even know they are? 

The writing in “Promising Young Woman” is sharp, brutal, blatant but also  subtle, eerie, and unsettling. It’s not surprising the same showrunner of “Killing Eve” is responsible for its brilliance. Something that on the surface seems satirical, sharp, straightforward, and satisfying is also devastating, challenging, complicated, and disturbing. We are left unable to answer the questions it asks, unable to enjoy the revenge because we are too busy mourning. Unable to settle into our grief because we are still disrupted by the dark humor and aesthetic of it all.  

“Haven’t you done anything you’re ashamed of?” Ryan calls after Cassie as she’s leaving, having revealed the rape video with him in it. Yes, we all have, but only a certain shame kills.

Cassie then blackmails Ryan for the location of Al’s upcoming bachelor party. An orchestral cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” plays as Cassie unknowingly (but knowing all too well) saunters to her death in a sexy nurse costume and rainbow wig, posing as a stripper to gain access to the party — a pop song reframed as sinister and eerie and a punchy, campy, promising scene that will quickly turn. 

After all the calculation, the preparation, the obsessive thoughts Cassie put into the climax of her revenge, the apex of her mission, a lifetime of plotting ends in five violent minutes, with Al smothering her with a pillow. To Cassie, Al was everything bad. To Al, Cassie was no one.

Rape victims live with the aftermath while the world spins on. Like Sharon Olds writes of the survivor in her poem “That Girl” about two 12-year-old girls being raped, one of them killed, “She knows what all of us want never to know and she does a cartwheel, the splits, she shakes the shredded pom-poms in her fists.”  Just because she lived doesn’t mean she wins. Just because Cassie wins, doesn’t mean she doesn’t die.

After his friend helps him dispose of Cassie in the woods, Al unceremoniously kicks her multi-colored manicured hand into a fire to speed up the burning of her body. This is a story of woman-gets-man-back, but it’s not a revenge story. How could it be when our heroine burns like yesterday’s news? How could it be when Al is kissed on the head and coddled by his friend after the murder, told it wasn’t his fault, and that it was okay? How could it be when a film packaged so perfectly hangs so heavy? The bow we expect the revenge fantasy to be wrapped in is inevitably a noose. What a lot of negative reviews are missing, in my opinion, is that the writers know this, and Cassie likely knew she would be killed. What I love most about the film is its awareness of its misguidedness and how unflinchingly it sheds truth. 

The ending is satisfying on the surface. Cassie’s one final act of revenge is the police arresting Al for murder and a few quippy posthumous texts sent to Ryan. The brilliance is you can still laugh at the ridiculousness of it all after just seeing the protagonist get murdered by a rapist. Just as you’re laughing at the faux spiritual ceremony of Al and Anastasia’s wedding, you’re gut-punched that a man could say his vows to one woman after having just committed an atrocity to another. 

The texts, the public embarrassment, the vindication — all the elements of revenge are there. But Cassie and Nina aren’t. What use is punishment if the women hurt are dead?

What “Promising Young Woman” is aware of, and leaves lingering, is that the revenge is fleeting. One can predict what will happen to Al. That’s why, as the credits roll, the viewer is left with a strange taste in their mouth, haunted, perhaps heartbroken, partially satisfied, yet thoroughly entertained and pensive. Sure, his wedding is ruined and he’s arrested for murder. But what happens next? 

He’ll likely get off, especially since we know sex workers are regarded as disposable and powerful men get away with this shit — also because Cassie was, well, deranged, and drugged and assaulted Al. Self-defense? Too drunk? Something like that. 

This film can, and likely will, easily fuel people to criticize “feminazis,” and quickly rush to defend and highlight “not all men,” and that women harm too, but I can’t blame Cassie for being angry and scared. If I dated men, I don’t know how I would balance my desire and fear. My love and my caution. My trust and my constant wondering. If I watched this film next to my boyfriend instead of girlfriend, I can’t even begin to wonder how I’d feel — defensive, insane, suspicious, unraveled. It’s just a fact that men harm women in different ways. How often do you hear about lesbians filming a gang rape and live tweeting it? It’s not fair to draw the parallel when part of the harm has everything to do with men doing it to women. 

But “Promising Young Woman” isn’t a straightforward indictment of men. The film doesn’t need to man bash; it sheds complicated light, and that’s part of its artfulness. Cassie isn’t perfect, and that’s part of her power. She is deeply traumatized, irrational, depressed, and essentially throws her life away to seek revenge that she knows won’t come. 

Men can be kind and loving and at the same time — just like the song “Toxic,” just like the film, just like all of us, flawed, but only one of those dichotomies end in death. I once had a coworker who said that any man could be a rapist and didn’t trust any of them, not even her father. At the time, I thought she was a “libtard” psycho, and my coworkers and I insisted that the men we know are good men. What “Promising Young Woman” forces us to look at is that the good men have the capability to do something awful, invasive and insidious and perhaps not even register it — and without the women that love them ever thinking they could. Good men love their wives, their daughters, their sisters no doubt; it’s the women they don’t love that are up for grabs.   

I expected “Promising Young Woman” to either be easy, wicked, and sarcastic or ripe for criticism. It’s neither of those things, and that’s why it’s so profoundly sad and will follow me until I can shake its brilliant discomfort off. “Promising Young Woman” is not the feminist revenge fantasy we were purposefully led to believe from the trailers and the beginning of the film. It’s the expertly woven story of a woman giving her life, just for once — and once and for all — to end her suffering.

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