'Promising Young Woman' is Not a Promising Film

TRIGGER WARNING: this article contains discussion and language regarding sexual assault which may be triggering for some readers. 

 

*Spoiler alert: this article mentions spoilers for the film Promising Young Woman. 

 

Promising Young Woman was released last year and is a story about a woman named Cassandra. Going into the movie, all the trailer tells you is that Cassandra, or Casey, has a ruse. She goes to clubs and pretends to be black-out drunk and waits until a man tries to pick her up and take her home. Casey waits until the man tries something inappropriate and morally wrong before dropping her act of an overly intoxicated woman.

The beginning of the film shows her at the homes of a few different men and each time she’s stumbling, slurring, and once even pretends to be passed out. The men all do the same thing, they compliment her and then try to take advantage of her, reassuring her the whole time that she’s safe and beautiful, even as she’s slurring at them to stop and take her home. 

While this setup to this big reveal is uncomfortable and triggering for me, I sit through these scenes motivated by the knowledge that she’s not actually drunk and these men aren’t taking advantage of her.She’s the one in control and these dirtbags are about to get the biggest shock of their lives when she stops pretending to be drunk.

And the wait was worth it. The shock and horror on the faces of these men, their cowering and placations, and weak stuttering defenses in the presence of this woman who flipped the script and made them look in a mirror are so satisfying. 

I truly loved this movie in the beginning. The acting is wonderful and the cinematography and color palette is gorgeous! While Casey is definitely flawed and coping with something dark in her past in an unhealthy way, I found myself rooting for and in awe of her dedication, surety, and audacity! Not to mention her dialogue with Bo Burnham is SO witty and cute. (I was rooting for their relationship so hard!) But, unfortunately… all good things must come to an end… and boy did they come crashing down in this film. It all starts when Casey is overcome with a desire to get revenge. 

When Casey first meets Ryan she is still full-blown conning men and showing them that picking up drunk women to have sex with is gross and oh-so WRONG. Surprisingly, Ryan breaks through Casey’s emotional walls and they begin going on dates. During this time, it seems as if Casey has stopped going to clubs and using her ruse. Aka she’s starting to heal and really live life again!

That is until she finds out one of the men involved in assaulting her friend Nina is getting married. When she hears that he is living life unaffected it’s as if all of her progress backslides and Casey begins to obsess again over what happened. Aka she’s still letting the assault and death of her friend control her life. But now instead of just showing men like the ones from med school that a person can’t consent if they’re inebriated, she begins to plot revenge.

The first person she gets revenge from is Madison, a woman who used to be friends with her and Nina in med school. It becomes apparent that for retribution Casey plans to show Madison what it feels like to be assaulted when wasted and not cognizant enough to be aware of what’s going on and stop it. 

In the past Madison, victim-blamed Nina for getting drunk and said that because she “slept around” it she should have expected to be assaulted. (First, let me say I STRONGLY  disagree with both of these sentiments. if I start addressing everything wrong with victim-blaming it will totally derail this movie critique, so I’m going to move past it and just say that it is never the survivors’ fault and that I will never be the type of woman to question when another person comes forward because I know it’s already hard enough to take that step <3) The scene ends with Casey leaving Madison at the restaurant drunk and pointing her out to a man she hired to take her to a hotel room.

I almost stopped watching after this scene. I was shocked and horrified. YES, Madison was shitty and still hasn’t grasped that how she acted was wrong but one person’s immoral actions shouldn’t justify another person to stoop so low! But, after this scene, Casey’s descent continues. And the audience watches as she’s caught back up in the trauma from her past and it begins to control her life again. 

Everything blows up after she’s had revenge on another woman, misses her date with Ryan, and goes to a club to pull her ruse. Except while she’s leaving, she and Ryan see each other and get into a fight. This part of the movie was disappointing because Casey had done so much work since the beginning of the movie to separate herself and move past her trauma. By dating someone she was finally taking back control of her life and truly living. During this part of the movie, it felt as if all the progress she’s made went down the drain. Yes, in real life progress and growth are not linear, but I went into this movie thinking it was going to be empowering and full of righteous justice and shitty men getting shit thrown back at them… that is not what this movie is. It’s what the trailer markets it as but in my opinion, Casey never regains control of her life and moves on. 

Instead, the last act of the movie depicts Casey dressing up as a stripper and crashing Al’s bachelor party. She slips a drug into the alcohol she gives his friends and takes Al upstairs. After cuffing both his hands to the bedpost she confronts him and he realizes she’s Nina’s friend. 

Casey begins a speech about how Nina was such a unique individual, she was always just herself and after Al raped her she wasn’t Nina anymore. No one even said Nina’s name. So, as retribution Casey alluded to carving Nina’s name into Al’s body. 

Yes, that’s a bit morbid but I was here for it. The whole situation was so horrible I was ready to see some vigilante justice. It seemed that’s what the movie had been leading to… instead Nina ends up smothered. Al and his friend dispose of the body and it seems like they’re getting away with it until the police crash his wedding and arrest him. 

This wasn’t enough for me. I thought the ending was extremely unsatisfying and it left me angry. Yes, she was able to get Al arrested and in a way that can be justice but he was arrested because he murdered her. Casey had to die for something to happen and now both Casey and Nina are dead. To me, this was a hollow victory and had a poor message. While Al eventually faced consequences those consequences didn’t happen soon enough and because of that, both Nina’s and Casey’s lives were completely destroyed. I think it is destructive to send the message that after being raped or sexually assaulted that trauma will control your life. In my opinion, rape and sexual assault are so difficult because the survivor feels out of control, what this movie is saying is that the survivor will never regain control, they will also be defined by the assault and what occurred will always weigh them down. Additionally, I think that any good message in the movie and any sense of karma is negated by the fact that Casey dies. If she were to truly have triumphed she would still be alive. After her death, Al’s arrest seems less like justice and more like a placation. Casey’s death can’t even be seen as Karama for her revenge schemes because she never did any lasting damage to anyone, she didn’t actually create a scenario where Madison would get raped, she just made Madison think and worry that something happened. And the other woman she visited also wasn’t physically harmed. 

What really did this movie in was the marketing. Even though I disagree with the message, Promising Young Woman was interesting and visually appealing. If the producers had marketed this movie about what it was actually about, instead of a woman acting drunk and going home with men to give them a reckoning, I would have been more prepared and less disappointed that it wasn’t empowering.