Promising Young Woman is a flashy (not as much as Lady Vengeance) revenge film but it’s not a typical one. In contrast to many vengeance films where the main motivation originates from loss of close family members, usually spouses or children, this is about friendship. Also, it looks violent and yet Cassie definitely has a line that she doesn’t cross. Most of her tactics are about giving her victims a shock and she doesn’t go with the typical tit-for-tat tactics. That’s why when I hear some critics describe Cassie’s character “crazy” I want to rather ask them a question: “would you call the extremely violent main male character from Oldboy crazy? You don’t, do you?”
This gendered double standard is well explored throughout the movie. The title says it all. When Cassie has a conversation with the dean of the medical school, the dean says we need to give benefit of doubt to these promising young boys whenever they are accused of sexual assault. But, what about promising young women? They are attacked, removed, and forgotten. I found it interesting that we never see any shot of Nina in the movie. She’s mentioned several times but we don’t see her face or hear her voice. She’s completely erased.
That’s probably why Cassie’s revenge feels more tragic and has more depth. Even Nina’s mom tells Cassie to move on but Cassie is completely consumed and it seems like her whole life’s purpose is to punish these men, whose sheer number never seems to reduce. Towards the end of the movie, in the cabin scene, we learn more about the relationship between Nina and Cassie, and how much Cassie admired Nina, almost treated Nina like her role model, and how Cassie’s dream to become a doctor is crushed with Nina’s suicide.
This tragedy reaches its climax when Al kills Cassie with a pillow after Cassie attempted to carve Nina’s name on Al’s body. The camera doesn’t move for a long time and it intentionally shows the whole process of Cassie being murdered. I found the method of murder also noticeable because it could have been stabbing or something else that is quicker but Al kills her by suffocating her with a pillow, essentially by muting her. After being mesmerized by Cassie’s bold actions throughout the whole movie, this scene comes as extremely heartbreaking and hopeless.
Interestingly, the movie ends with Cassie’s contingency plan coming in action. She apparently set up things in advance so that the authorities can be notified at the event of her death. The movie ends with Cassie’s scheduled text message sending a wink emoji to Ryan. It was in a way somewhat satisfying but very bittersweet. Jenna Wortham in the Still Processing podcast said it’s a naive thought that law enforcement and legal system can punish these bad guys and we can just expect everything to be okay. I had the same thought after the movie. Given Cassie’s behavior and how people can easily conduct character assassination on the accused, realistically, it’s unlikely that people like Al will be punished fairly in real life. Understandably, Cassie was all alone and everything was against her, and thus she perhaps had to make a dire choice. But still, I am wondering whether there might have been a better option than having Cassie murdered and letting the authorities handle the rest. It’s almost like the ending is the opposite of what the rest of movie was about, the empowerment of the victims.
Nevertheless, the movie was brilliantly done and there were many scenes that made my blood boil or made me extremely uncomfortable. Given the fact that all revenge stories have difficulties with ending on a satisfying note, I still want to applaud the artistry of Emerald Fennell, her crew, and the cast.