Promising Young Woman rolls out its opening credits over shots of drunk men sloppily grinding at a nightclub, the camera never panning above neck-level as a play on the frequent objectification of female bodies in cinema. Indeed, everything about this movie aims to subvert. The montage is followed by an unsettling sequence that introduces us to Cassie (Carey Mulligan), all dressed up and too drunk to stand. She is picked up by a “nice guy” who takes her back to his apartment and proceeds to undress her—that is, until Cassie sits bolt upright, stone-cold sober and awfully stern. It is in this moment that we meet the real Cassie, who, in pursuit of vengeance for the sexual assault of her late best friend Nina, spends her evenings luring creeps out of hiding to teach them a lesson. With its gorgeous pastel costumes and sets, a sizzlingly sardonic screenplay, and a masterfully calibrated leading performance from Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman is, for the most part, a fun and satisfying watch.
Until it isn’t.
The politics of Promising Young Woman are surprisingly tricky to unravel. On the one hand, the film markets itself as a revenge thriller, seeming to promise a cathartic tale of vigilante justice—yet it opts not to follow through with this. Instead, it delivers a twist ending entirely devoid of fun or satisfaction, leaving behind only a feeling of absolute hollowness for the remainder of the film. The movie’s climax, a nearly two-minute-long shot where Cassie is smothered to death by her best friend’s rapist, feels like a slap in the face to female-identifying viewers, serving as a harsh reminder that women can be as tough, calculating, and ruthless as we like, but men will still murder us.
The story’s trajectory begs the question of who this movie’s message is really for. The movie appeared to be targeted toward those with enough awareness of the conversation surrounding rape culture to appreciate jokes critiquing it, a category into which frighteningly few men fall. And yet, the women who likely make up the majority of the audience surely don’t need to be reminded of the constant threat of violence that looms over us every day. However, if we treat this as a movie intended for men, perhaps to help them empathize or somehow scare them out of committing sexual assault, it fails. After all, while both of Cassie’s female victims are punished harshly and without remorse, all of the men she targets escape their intended punishment. In fact, she subjects former friend Madison (Alison Brie) to such intense psychological manipulation that even the most vengeful of viewers is liable to have second thoughts. Meanwhile, both Nina’s rapist, Al (Chris Lowell), and the man who defended him in court walk away entirely unharmed from their encounters with Cassie. This setup feels all too evocative of the classic expression “boys will be boys,” holding women severely accountable for their actions, while allowing men to get away with far greater crimes. Although Al is supposedly brought to justice in the end, it is Cassie who pays the ultimate price. It is also worth noting that the only depiction of violence in the film is a woman being killed—not a single woman wins in this movie. Promising Young Woman undermines itself with an ending that feels incongruous with the rest of the story, becoming yet another movie in which female bodies are mutilated by men.
The movie still gives us a remarkably honest portrayal of grief and trauma, and delivers biting social commentary, particularly in its early scenes. However, it takes its aim of subversion too far, trying too hard to surprise and consequently sending a message that its audience doesn’t need to hear. In the end, Promising Young Woman succeeds at deviating from the conventions of the rape revenge movie genre, but not in a way that adds anything meaningful or productive to the conversation surrounding sexual assault.