This feature contains spoilers to Promising Young Woman.
Promising Young Woman, directed by Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve), spikes rage and frustration. At the same time, it stimulates an important and controversial discourse amongst critics and the public. Some are in awe of Carey Mulligan's (Mudbound) captivating portrayal of Cassandra. Those on the opposite side agree, but cannot shake the film's finale that feels a little like a betrayal to the main character and female viewers.
Cassie is a former med student now working in a coffee shop. The woman is incredibly smart, polished and, at times, sarcastic. After dropping out of college because of brutal events regarding her best friend, Nina, Cassie starts living a double life. During the day, the character works and lounges through life, trying not to stand out. However, at night, Cassie goes to the bar and pretends to be drunk until "a gentleman" arrives to "help her." She then graciously lets them and, once "safely" at their place, she faces them and their not-so-ulterior intentions.
Promising Young Woman is a film about revenge, sorrow, and, most importantly, the rape culture that is still widely accepted—even by women. Fennell showcases it, especially in the scene where Dean Walker (Connie Britton) talks to Cassie: "You know we get accusations like this all the time. What would you have me do? Ruin a young man's life?" The line said by Britton's character is particularly telling. In our culture, a young white man's life is prioritized at every single step. There are things that we don't even notice anymore because they were normalized throughout the years. But in the film, Cassie does and takes the matter into her own hands.
The idea is certainly smart. Fennell creates a vengeance story of the main character and displays her methods of revenge, which are rather exceptional. Casandra doesn’t particularly hurt men, but rather damage their egos. What we perceive on the screen is that she challenges them and embarrasses them in their own places: "How old am I? What are my hobbies? What's my name? Sorry, maybe that one's too hard," she says to one of the "nice" men who brought her home and was about to harass her sexually, even though she appears to be barely conscious. Cassie's actions are thought out. We, as an audience, understand where she's coming from. She’s simply fed up with men not being held accountable for their actions.
At some point, Cassie meets Ryan (Bo Burnham), who attended the med school at the same time as her, Nina, and Nina's rapist, Al (Chris Lowell). It quickly turns out that Ryan isn't innocent regarding the actions from the past. When a certain video comes to the surface, Cassie prepares the ultimate revenge that is supposed to occur at Al's bachelor party. Everything escalates in the last act of Promising Young Woman. The finale caused rather upset feelings in some people who state that the ending is considerably weakened, devalued, and makes the opposite point of what we would have expected. It's also the part that critics talk about the most—the film's ending and Cassie's fate.
Before we dive in and further explore the ending's meaning, we must reflect on the characters. While Cassie is stuck in the past, fighting for Nina and her legacy, Al and his friends got their degree and moved on. They had the best lives, careers, and lovers. The men quickly forgot about the fact that they raped a woman and recorded it. It was so easy for them to brush off the past because society is more willing to forgive another white man rather than believe the victim.
Meanwhile, the only destroyed person is Cassandra, who prepares the ultimate revenge. With her rainbow-colored wig, in a nurse's costume, and blood-red high heels, the character arrives at the location where the bachelor party takes place. It only goes downhill from there.
We want to see her thrive. We want Cassandra to get her justice. We want Al and his friends to pay for what they did, for essentially taking Nina's life and ruining Cassie's. However, Fennell takes another turn in the narrative, probably one of the most frustrating, upsetting moments in the film this year. Al murders Cassie in cold blood; she literally becomes a pile of ash while the people who raped Nina go on with their lives. And this is only one component of why the ending can be (and for me was) extremely infuriating, disturbing, and outright brutal. As it almost always is, the male characters didn't receive any deserved punishment. While we see them being taken by the police and the offices retrieve Cassie's necklace, the film ends. We don't see them during the trial; we don't see Al and his buddy getting a prison sentence. At the end, it all comes down to an individual and whether they trust the police system or not. Personally, no justice was served and Cassie became yet another victim.
Nevertheless, after talking to a few people about Promising Young Woman, one other angle surfaced: what if Fennell meant this ending to be this way? While our blood boils seeing Cassie's fate, and we grit our teeth, sitting at the edge of our seat, there are millions of women being treated this way by the police system and other people. How many times do we hear someone saying, "She was asking for it"? Maybe the film's narrative is meant to upset us this way so we can feel the excruciating pain, rage, and frustration of these women who fought and failed.
The question that comes to mind is, what if the ending was changed? Would it be more satisfying if Mulligan's character survived and escaped after completing her master plan? What kind of discourse would occur then? These questions, however, are entirely rhetorical. One thing is certain: Mulligan's performance is incredibly exhilarating. No matter if some loved the narrative and, specifically, the ending of the film and others hated it, the discourse we will have about Promising Young Woman will still be crucial for our culture. It’s important to touch upon the rape culture presented in the film and see how it reflects our own world.
In case you missed it, read Heather Wixson's review of Promising Young Woman.