WARNING: I always include spoilers.
Most descriptions of Promising Young Woman I’m seeing, whether by critics or marketing people, seem to bump their heads against the limitations of an industry and a society in the grip of an unfortunate compulsion to categorize: “thriller”, “black comedy”, “#metoo” and so forth. OR they resort to coupling them together in an unsatisfactory choo-choo-train, i.e., a #metoo-black comedy-thriller. It’s symptomatic of a dysfunctional culture that we have to slice everything up like this, identify it, put it in a jar, shelve it in a section. Real art doesn’t work that way. In fact, I’d go so far as to say, if you can describe it with a label, odds are good that it’s not complex, and if it’s not complex, then how can it be good? I’m sure almost everyone in this benighted culture will knee-jerk disagree with me, but I know I’m right. The difference is the same as that between those foam orange “circus peanuts”…and actual peanuts. What is Vertigo? Suspense thriller? Ghost story? Pervert story? Tourist travelogue of San Francisco? Hitchcock’s dream journal? How about not doing that at all? It’s just Vertigo.
That’s how I feel about Promising Young Woman. It is a story: end of story. One might say it happens to be topical, but its only topical because the issue is being talked about at the moment, a sad commentary, given that the issue itself is actually perennial and age-old, which is to say a part of human experience. It’s so universal, in fact, that the structure of the film, combined with Emerald Fennell’s peculiarly icy brand of compassion (known to us so well from Killing Eve), reminds me of the worldview of the Ancient Greeks. She expresses emotions like sorrow, fear and anger with an Olympian aloofness, transforming it into wit, bloody action, and visual poetry. It is a cruel sensibility, but not one insensitive to the pain that’s portrayed. And that’s what reminds me of the Greeks. There is an inevitablity to the events; no one will be spared; it won’t be pretty; but it’s got to go down this way because the first domino has fallen, and so too must the other other dominoes because that is what dominoes do.
Women are through with “boys being boys”. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe men can transcend their animal programming, or if you think the job of women is to Lie Back and Think of England. Unless you are completely dense, you can see that women are done. It is beyond political or social. It is existential. The insistence of some that women have to get over it, or shut up about it, or “enough already”, or that they’re lying or exaggarating (all of them, apparently, all 3.8 billion of them) or “it’s no big deal” is simply more fuel for the furnace. Historically, women have been treated as meat. They object to that. The traditional response is “Aw, isn’t that too bad? The meat doesn’t like being treated like meat!” In light of that, one might reasonably ask why more violence isn’t done to men by women. But the answer is contained in the question. Men are the specialists in violence, ordinarily. Some may be top dogs, some may be lackeys, but on some level, biologically, they’re (we’re) wired to fuck and kill, and to calculate the next act of brutality. To do it, or to stand idly by while someone else does it. Don’t argue about it; it’s the whole history of humanity. If it’s not true, then burn down the library, for it’s full if lies. Thus more women don’t do violence to men because they have been playing defense — since the beginning of time.
Therefore Promising Young Woman isn’t just a revenge fantasy of one woman’s payback campaign. The movie is only that at the most superficial level. What’s extraordinary about the experience (speaking the only way I can speak about it, which is as a straight man), is that it is not extraordinary. Existence for women seems like an exhausting dawn-to-dusk series of encounters in which they’re evaluated, measured, appraised, flattered (or insulted), tricked, lied to, and periodically violated. What men won’t admit to is the flip side: that, for them, existence is a constant howl of brute desire that they need to keep at bay for the sake of civilization. The most painful and necessary aspect of Promising Young Woman for most men (the ones who aren’t lying to themselves) is the shame of self-recognition. We’ve all been slime-balls. The only question is, “How far along the slime-ball scale did we allow ourselves to get, when the chips were down?” You don’t have to have been a rapist. How bothersome have you been, on occasion? How, to use an overused but usefully vague word, inappropriate? None shall escape unscathed.
In Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan plays a young woman whose life collapsed when her best friend was raped in a college dorm (with many witnesses) and later killed herself. She becomes consumed with the injustice of the crime, as no schoolmates have stepped forward to verify her claim, and no one in positions of authority takes action. Though she is a star med school student, she drops out and becomes a barista, with the entertaining but unhealthy hobby of pretending to be drunk in bars, enticing men to take her home, and then soberly confronting them about their shameful behavior when they are about to commit date rape. They are hard scenes to watch, if exhilarating when she springs the trap. The Gotcha sting is initially as far as she takes her obsession, although everything is turned up a notch when she finally encounters one of her old classmates (Bo Burnham) who fills her in on the whereabouts of the rapist (Chris Lowell) and some of the people they went to school with. Long story short, she ups her game and revenges herself on several of them, including one woman who witnessed the rape but downplayed it (Alison Brie), a school official (Connie Britton), and finally, at the climax, the frat bro himself — who then turns the tables and smothers her to death with a pillow. Originally, the film was to end at this horrible Looking for Mr, Goodbar moment, but, thankfully Fennell was talked into a much more positive denouement in which the dude is arrested by police and made to pay for his crimes — at his own wedding. It’s the kind of comeuppance many of us wanted for Bret Kavanaugh, and so, to bring up the Greeks again, there is a catharsis of sorts. Life doesn’t always work this way, but it doesn’t always NOT work this way, either. There can be no progress without hope.
And (Greeks again) Mulligan’s character is flawed. Revenge is never healthy, and while we enjoy some of it, she also goes too far. Her machinations result in Brie’s character’s rape, for example. That’s certainly a bit of an eye for an eye, and Brie’s character is made to see the light in the wake of her own violation, but one wishes she could have been persuaded by less egregious means. Most savagely, at the climax, the main character is poised to carve her initials into the villian’s stomach with a scalpel. We don’t know what she intends: murder or a mere maiming. But, like one of Ibsen’s heroes, she is clearly a character who, while on the right side, doesn’t always DO right, which is what makes this a complex, throught-provoking film. As in any tragedy, she must pay with her life. I found the orchestration of her murder to be (forgive me) the film’s money shot, for the dude’s overreaction — his inability to control his base, animal brutality (in a bed, no less) is exactly analogous to a rape. And, just as with the rape that launched the events of the narrative, it snuffs out a Promising Young Woman.
Sound unbearably awful? I’m not telling it right! It’s satire as much as anything else and the casting will tell you everything you need to know about the fabric of the film. In addition to those mentioned, there are Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown as Mulligan’s clueless, kitsch-loving parents, Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black as her tolerant boss at the coffee shop, Alfred Molina as a sleazy but repentant defense laywer, and Molly Shannon as her dead friend’s mom. The chameleon-like Mulligan is terrific as the melancholy, haunted vigilante-chick — deservedly Oscar nominated, in fact. I’m not sure if she’s my pick for Best Actress (it’s stiff competition), but I’d love to see Promising Young Woman get Best Picture or Best Director or Best Screenplay. I’m sure it’s too dark to win any of these categories in a contest as middle-brow and conventionally-minded as the Oscars, but I’d be tickled to be proven wrong.