Editor’s note: TRIGGER WARNING for discussion of sexual assault and rape
Editor’s note: Spoiler warning for “Promising Young Woman”
A storyline rooted in years of sexual incursion, “Promising Young Woman” envelopes its audience in a suspenseful, revenge thriller about a young woman attempting to subvert the patriarchy.
The film follows medical school dropout Cassandra (Carrey Mulligan), whose life seems wistfully dull during the day as a 30-year-old coffee shop barista living with her parents.
However, when the sun falls, Cassandra becomes a vicious predator, hell-bent on exploiting men. Cassandra’s alluring, night-time alter ego originates from a vaguely-disclosed trauma her best friend, Nina, experienced during their time in medical school.
Director Emerald Fennell gradually reveals what happened to Nina, exposing that she was the victim of sexual assault. The event caused Cassandra’s life to collapse into a dark hole of depression and regret, fully fleshing out the motives behind her newfound life of vengeance.
The character of Cassandra Thomas is a challenging role that not many actresses can pull off. Cassandra’s dark humor and borderline manic behavior are fully expressed through Carrey Mulligan’s superb acting. Her performance will undoubtedly win her a ticket back to the Academy Awards after her 2009 star-making performance in “An Education.”
“Promising Young Woman” is not an easy film to watch. With the subject matter centering around sexual assault and the emotional trauma it causes, almost every aspect of the film can be viewed as triggering to some degree.
This creates a frightening experience for the viewer, as it should. The film does not hold the audience’s hand when things get intense. Instead, it forces actual thought and conversation around topics that society tries to censor.
The second act of “Promising Young Woman” gives hope that Cassandra will eventually find closure on the situation when she falls in love with her former medical school classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham). The film’s tone shifts towards an airy lightness that embodies Cassandra’s newfound happiness, but Ryan’s deeply unsettling secret destroys any trust Cassandra had in men. And this sudden destruction of trust sets an entire new tone for the film.
The decision to horrifically disassociate Cassandra from Ryan after finally coming to terms with her life shifts the story into a new gear. We see our heroine fully relapse back into her sociopathic tendencies, dismantling the system that destroyed her best friend’s life. However, this time around, Cassandra “knows” her fate is sealed, setting up for one of the most divisive endings out of any film I have seen this year.
The final act of “Promising Young Woman” creates a tonal shift that will puzzle viewers.
Although the ending creates a sense of justice for Nina, it may be too exaggerated in its execution. This exaggeration inadvertently creates an opportunity for the film’s ending to be discussed long after the credits roll, addressing the major issue of censorship around sexual assault cases.