Promising Young Woman (2020)

Promising Young Woman is an in-your-face story of a woman taking revenge on men who take advantage of women.  Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra, a woman whose motives become clear as the movie progresses.  Her performance is unlike anything she’s done before, and easily elevates her to the upper-tier of actresses working today.  If you’re a woman, I’d think there’s plenty in the movie you can relate to.  If you’re a self proclaimed “nice guy”, the movie is a splash of ice water to the face.  Highly recommended.

As a man (and to further delineate myself, a white man), I’ll probably never know what it means to feel like prey, or be hunted.  While I may not be able to fully empathize with the life experience of a woman like Cassandra, that doesn’t mean I can’t try to understand why she feels the way she does.  Her best friend Nina was sexually assaulted while intoxicated as others watched.  When Nina went to the college with her accusations, they were unsupportive, saying that the accused are innocent until proven guilty.  The legal system offered her no recourse, and the guy’s lawyer pressured her into dropping the charges.  With no avenue left for justice, she committed suicide.  Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), Nina’s best friend since they were four years-old, stood by her friend, dropped out of medical school to do so.  A year after her friend committed suicide, everyone wants Cassandra to move on, including her parents and Nina’s mother.  But how does one simply “move on” after losing your best friend, while the victimizers are left to live out their lives as if nothing happened?

As you can tell, Promising Young Woman is a narrative structured around the concerns of the  #MeTo movement.  It unsparingly shows how men look at a drunk, single woman in a bar as an easy mark, a person to be taken advantage of with minimal or no repercussions.  As the self-described “nice guy” on the prowl rationalizes, a woman that wears sexy clothing and drinks too much must be “asking for it”.  Why else would she put herself in such a vulnerable position if she weren’t looking for “action”?

Cassandra turns this scenario on its head by faking to be drunk.  When she’s taken to the man’s home or apartment she repeatedly protests the man’s sexual advances, retaining her inebriated facade all the while.  These scenes are played excruciatingly out in real time, showing exactly how awful the “nice guy” really is, and they honestly made me queasy.  As a typical man, I admit that when our motor gets running, it is very difficult to down-shift.  But that never means that down-shifting isn’t possible.  As women have increasingly come forward to tell their stories, it is clear that no means no, and that women aren’t going to slink away quietly when they are mistreated.  Cassandra doesn’t use social media to “out” her would-be victimizers.  Instead, she confronts them physically.  At first, I thought she was killing the men, in a gender-swapped American Psycho way, but that’s not the case.  Occasionally she draws blood, but her intent is to make the guy know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable, by telling them that their “nice guy” persona is just all talk.

At this point, I may have convinced you that Promising Young Woman is a serious and somber  drama.  While there are scenes like that in the movie, the movie is filled with sharp (razor sharp) humor.  The movie has a droll wit to it, which it employs selectively.  The movie is the darkest of dark comedies, where laughter is generated from the audience’s shock and incredulity of what unfolds.  For example, when former schoolmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) meets Cassandra at the coffee shop where she works, he nervously insults her.  When he says she can spit in his coffee for revenge, she promptly does so.  To prove his sincerity, he drinks it!  The two of them share a love of sarcasm and fall into a relationship.  However, when Ryan says that he will be attending the wedding of the man who assaulted her friend and helped him get away with it, Cassandra begins plotting her revenge on those who were responsible for Nina’s suicide.

Cassandra’s hit list includes four people.  First is Madison (Alison Brie), the best friend who compartmentalized, rationalized and subsequently ignored what she heard about Nina’s assault so she wouldn’t have to deal with it.  Next is Jordan (Alfred Molina), the lawyer who worked on behalf of Nina’s victimizer until she dropped her charges.  Dean Walker (Connie Britton) is next on the list, the dean at the medical school Cassandra and Nina attended.  She chose to not ruin a young man’s life over unproven charges from a woman.  Finally there’s Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), Nina’s rapist.  He’s clearly moved on from his college indiscretions, to the point where he’s marrying a bikini model.  Cassandra gets a figurative pound of flesh from Madison and Dean Walker, but after a heartfelt confession from Jordan, decides to leave him unpunished.  Cassandra’s revenge for Al unfortunately doesn’t go as planned, but a clever use of scheduled  messaging does ultimately result in justice for Nina as well as herself.

Promising Young Woman does an excellent job of weaving recent examples of sexual assault into its story.  If you’ve followed the media over the last several years, you’ll notice similarities to the stories of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, Brock Allen Turner and Chanel Miller, Aziz Ansari and T. J. Miller (to name a few).  In the movie as in real life, it is difficult if not impossible for a woman to have her charges taken seriously, and if they are, to a favorable result from the legal system.  Promising Young Woman has both Ryan and Al state how they don’t want their lives ruined over something that happened a long time ago in college.  They’re doctors now, after all.  They have sick people to treat, so why take a good doctor away from his patients?  Al never acknowledges that he basically ruined a life and got away with it.  The only one who cares about Nina anymore is Cassandra, and she doesn’t want her friend’s life to be forgotten and her death to be meaningless.  Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but in this movie, it’s served with a smile.

In the third act, when Cassandra confronts Ryan about witnessing Nina’s assault and laughing it off, I initially thought the plot went a bit too far in turning him into another Nice Guy who really isn’t nice.  To be fair, instead of admitting that he should have done something at the time to help Nina, he whimpers that he doesn’t want to lose his career.  When given a second chance to be a stand-up guy, he too becomes a scared coward, wanting to protect what he has even if it means sacrificing his relationship with Cassandra.  I wanted the plot to redeem Ryan, to have him confess that he walked away from the assault so that his friendships would remain intact, then help Cassandra exact her final revenge on Al.  I realized afterwards that this was just identification and wish-fulfillment on my part.  Promising Young Woman wants us to realize that there are few (if any) men in Ryan’s position that would do anything like that.  The movie isn’t interested in giving us the Hollywood ending, and instead wants us to confront the harsh truth that few men in real life would ever risk it all to help obtain justice for a woman who was sexaully assaulted.

Much has been written about how a reviewer for Variety criticized the casting of Carey Mulligan in the role of Cassandra, that she wasn’t pretty enough for the part.  That Margot Robbie should have played Cassandra herself.  As my wife told me, that opinion completely misses the point of the movie.  Most guys (myself included) would never have the courage to be in the same room with someone as stunning as Margot Robbie without turning into a puddle of goo.  They would, however, feel perfectly comfortable hitting on Carey Mulligan, a woman who is pretty but not paralyzing.  Men are quick to underestimate a woman who looks like Carey Mulligan, believing that she is weak and easily compromised.  As Promising Young Woman shows, they do that at their own peril.

As I mentioned in the beginning, Carey Mulligan turns in a killer performance in the movie.  In movies I’ve seen her in previously, like An Education, Drive and The Dig, her acting displays an ethereal vulnerability.  In Promising Young Woman, she shows a knack for dark comedy that I hadn’t seen before.  Her performance has earned her well-deserved praise, and hopefully an entirely new spectrum of roles to tear into.

Bo Burnham also does well as Ryan, a man who resorts to self-deprecation and sarcasm as an escape value for dealing with intimacy.  Burnham was the creative force behind Eighth Grade (2018), a movie that evoked much nervous laughter from the cringe-worthy moments of its heroine.  He managed to make me feel a bit sorry for Ryan, a character who has used humor as a way to deflect life’s serious moments.  At the end of the movie, some may feel he hasn’t earned what’s coming for him.  However, when you dodge responsibility for your actions (or inactions), don’t be surprised when karma comes your way.

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