[Ed. note: This essay contains descriptions of sexual assault and violence. It also reveals and analyzes the ending of Promising Young Woman.]
The trailer for Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman teased a fresh story about sexual violence from an unusual and impressive angle. Movies and television shows that address sexual violence are still too often retrograde and exploitative, used to shorthand an antagonist’s villainy or a hero’s motivation. They frequently focus on how assault affects the male characters connected to the survivor, among other insulting tropes. Beyond that, much of the storytelling is simply boring, relying on the same story beats, like using sexual assault to make an unpopular woman character more palatable. But Promising Young Woman appeared to be serving up something different. Fennell’s story looked like it was trying to break out of the old patterns.
So much of Fennell’s directorial debut is well-crafted. The casting of 2000s Nice Guys like Adam Brody (Seth Cohen from The O.C.) and two of Veronica Mars’ more emotionally healthy exes (Chris Lowell and Max Greenfield) seemed inspired. The Girl Culture aesthetic is expertly applied, from the unabashed use of pop music usually labelled a “guilty pleasure,” like a Britney Spears cover and a Paris Hilton bop, to the soft pastel aesthetics of the protagonist’s daytime rituals.
I was on board for the story of Cassie, a medical-school dropout eking out a small-time nightly vengeance for her best friend Nina, who was raped in med school and later died, seemingly by suicide. Cassie isn’t a sexual-violence survivor herself, but she carries her own trauma and survivor’s guilt as Nina’s best friend, who wasn’t there the night of the rape, couldn’t get justice for her, and then couldn’t save her best friend. As a sexual-assault survivor myself, I recognized so much of myself in the way Cassie becomes obsessed, self-sabotages, takes undue risks, compartmentalizes herself into her days at the coffee shop and her nights on the prowl, and makes her life small and isolated.
In the film’s finale, Nina’s rapist, Al (Chris Lowell), kills Cassie and burns her body, unaware that she’s already pre-arranged for the evidence against him to reach the police. The cops show up at Al’s wedding to arrest him for Cassie’s murder, but she has to die to make them care. It’s nauseating.
“I had to be honest,” Fennell told EW. “It’s how the system works. The house always wins. For me, it would be an enormous injustice to be so honest the whole way through this movie and then have a Hollywood ending that also let us all off the hook.”
That’s an understandable perspective. But at what point do survivors deserve less traumatic storytelling? When do we get to see a better world, one where people living with trauma get to heal, fall in love, seek justice, or just plain live? How long do we have to keep being object lessons for other people about our own pain?
To be clear, Promising Young Woman is light years ahead of, say, Game of Thrones, which focused not on a victim, but on a male bystander. Or Red Sparrow’s glee in tormenting Jennifer Lawrence’s character for titillation. Or the supposedly feminist 2017 rape-revenge flick Revenge, with its heavy use of the male gaze. Fennell’s film isn’t peerless — five years ago, Sweet/Vicious broke this ground with a buddy comedy about two college students who become anti-rapist vigilantes. Buoyed by research about trauma and actual campus sexual-assault cases, the show has a beloved following to this day. Unbelievable and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri both feature non-survivors who serve as avenging angels — in Unbelievable’s true story, they’re police detectives, while in Three Billboards, a victim’s grieving mother (Frances McDormand) is a fury, much like Cassie. In any case, for all of Promising Young Woman’s merits, it still uses trauma and sexual violence to teach a lesson to the unenlightened, while telling actual survivors that the price of justice is our lives. When do we get stories on screen that don’t absolutely crater us, supposedly in service to our cause?
I understand Fennell’s unwillingness to tie the story up neatly in a bow. For about six years, I spoke as a volunteer through my local rape crisis center. The groups I addressed varied, but whether they were incoming college freshmen, law students, fraternity brothers, or members of our military, they had similarities. I used to feel the audience’s eagerness for me to be a Good Survivor™ with a happily-ever-after to give what happened to me meaning every time I told my story publicly. They’d suggest silver linings like lawyers leading a witness, hungry for a way to feel better about what happened to me. “But you seem fine now, right?” “I mean do you really regret it, if it helped you become such a good activist?” “You’re still with the boyfriend, right?” And the worst of all, “What can I tell my daughter who’s going off to college in the fall?” Translation: How I keep her from ever becoming you? How did you cause this, and how can she make sure to never cause her own sexual assault?
The answer is that I’m both fine and not fine. Yes, I wish I hadn’t been assaulted. I would absolutely remove my experiences with sexual violence, and everyone else’s, in a heartbeat, if you happen to know of any magic lamps. I’m not with anyone right now — being assaulted by someone I cared about and trusted has made dating difficult. And in the end, there’s frighteningly close to nothing that individuals can do to prevent their own assaults, which is what makes Cassandras out of all of us survivors — and sometimes even our best friends. We know the truth: this can happen to any of us at any time. None of us are safe. There is no magic incantation to ward off evil.
But by ending Promising Young Woman with Cassie’s post-death “victory,” Fennell has instead set a clear price for vengeance. Much of the film lays out the ways Cassie worked for justice for Nina while they were both alive, and ran up against indifference and resistance from every institution she approached. It is genuinely confusing that at the end of the film, the police suddenly believe and act on phantom evidence in a movie that otherwise tacitly acknowledges that working with law enforcement on sexual assault cases is a nonstarter. Nevertheless, the cavalry arrives when it’s too late for both of the women who were wronged.
Some viewers and critics alike see this ending as a litmus test. Celebrate it, and you’re a feminist who understands the film’s depth. If it gives you pause, you’re probably complicit in rape culture. In an interview with Bustle, Lowell said, “I love that there are going to be plenty of people who are going to be offended by this movie. There are also plenty of people who are going to feel vindicated by this movie.” In the same interview, Brody described himself as “not too sympathetic to the men cowering in fear” of watching this movie. As the male cast members put it, those who are bothered are probably sexist jerks.
But there’s nothing “You go girl!” about the ending to Promising Young Woman, and it’s frustrating how comfortable we are seeing Cassie pay the ultimate price, the continuation of women sacrificing themselves body and soul in the name of justice. Certainly many people, survivors included, have vocally enjoyed this ending. Some see it as the only artistically correct choice, and even find it empowering. Cassie’s ability to exact a measure of justice from beyond the grave feels superhuman, making her more powerful than Nina’s perpetrator.
But the ending will likely sting the most for those who’ve experienced the injustice of sexual assault firsthand. It’s one thing to have always suspected that pursuing any form of justice against my perpetrator or my friends’ perpetrators would turn my life upside down. It’s another thing entirely to watch a candy-colored version of how I could die trying.
Even if you believe the price Cassie pays for justice is fair, the kind of justice Promising Young Woman doles out leaves a lot to be desired. It clearly isn’t the stylized vengeance-bloodbath typical of the rape-revenge genre, dripping hot-dog imagery and winking trailers to the contrary. In spite of these coy hints that Cassie’s nightly vigil is violent, when we finally see a full encounter play out, all she does is talk to the guy. In Revenge, protagonist Jen goes full scorched-earth, killing not only her rapist, but every man who enabled him, in a way that turns an entire vacation home into a bloody slip ’n’ slide. The Sweet/Vicious pilot has vigilantes murdering a rapist and singing along to Wicked with his corpse in the trunk — and that was on basic cable in 2016. Promising Young Woman’s “revenge” — a good stern talking-to for a notebook full of bros, a failed attempt to carve Nina’s name into Al’s abdomen, and whatever the cops cook up for Cassie’s death — looks downright paltry in comparison.
Instead of a cartoonish, gleefully manic killing spree, all Cassie does is provoke some fear, hopefully shift a few perspectives, and then get a man arrested, even though he’s totally going to Brock Turner his way out of the whole situation. Should the audience suddenly pretend that the criminal legal system is helpful in issues of domestic and sexual violence? Are we now willfully ignoring that police commit domestic and sexual violence at higher rates than the general population, a fact Netflix’s Unbelievable might be alone in recognizing?
The ending is a no-win situation. Score one for Cassie by invoking our carceral system, which many survivors rightly don’t believe will support them and some want to abolish outright, and balance that out with a death that’s such a betrayal, some viewers will hold out hope that Cassie is somehow still alive, right up until they see the pastel-painted fingernails on her lifeless hand sticking out of a fire. Not exactly cathartic.
So far, much of the writing about the ending of Promising Young Woman has assumed that Cassie’s death was a necessary part of the story, and that the legal ramifications are a salve that lessens the cruelty. While that’s the order of the plot, that doesn’t mean it’s the order of operations for writing the script. Cassie’s death was never required. For those expecting a rape-revenge movie, revenge was always on the menu. From that perspective, Cassie’s death is the twist, making it feel like a payment she must make in order to exact her revenge. There are far greater variations on healing, justice, vengeance, and Cassie’s self-sabotaging, which could have yielded an ending with more nuance.
Michaela Coel’s HBO miniseries I May Destroy You does exactly that, pushing back against Hollywood’s need for plot-driven endings. By providing a kaleidoscope of possibilities for the paths its protagonist may have chosen, as well as refusing to pin the season finale to the outcome of the police investigation, Coel, who is herself a survivor, created an ending that is gutting and emotionally resonant. It pulls no punches, and it’s deeply realistic to the survivor experience, which never really ends.
There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about saying that rape culture is horrifying and unjust. Promising Young Woman does have plenty to recommend it, especially Carey Mulligan’s strong performance and the camera’s disdainful female gaze in the opening scene. The film’s most novel insight has also been its least-discussed: the way Bo Burnham’s Ryan, a man Cassie loves. She warily trusts his goodness after he repeatedly proves himself. But he turns out to be complicit in Nina’s rape all the same. His behavior once Cassie confronts him is chilling; this nuanced look at at an everyday betrayal within rape culture is a rarity on screen. Unfortunately, whatever point the rest of the ending tries to make is neither novel nor insightful. What’s revelatory about putting one more dead victim of violence against women on our screens?