Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.
Revenge movies are a very particular thing. Typically, if you have a revenge picture written about a woman by a man, you get something like I Spit on Your Grave--cheap, tawdry, and filled with a lot of gratuitous and unpleasant nudity. Sometimes, you might get something more like Last House on the Left, which is still unpleasant, although with some moral message. Years ago, a woman writing this story might pen something closer to The Girl Most Likely to…, which gets rid of a lot of the gratuitous nastiness and is both darker and funnier. In the “Me Too” era, though, we get Promising Young Woman.
Promising Young Woman feels like the natural extension of the Me Too Movement. While there are moments here that are darkly comic, this is a film that is deadly serious at its core and that is focused not just on the concept of toxic masculinity, but on the reaction to it. Cassie Thomas (Carrie Mulligan) is a medical school drop-out now working a dead-end job in a coffee shop with Gail (Laverne Cox). At night, she pursues her real job. Cassie spends her time in bars and nightclubs pretending to be drunk, waiting to get picked up by predatory men, and then revealing the fact that she is completely sober to them as they try to take advantage of her.
What we learn eventually is that Cassie left med school because of her friend Nina, who was sexually assaulted by another student. The rapist, named Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), was more or less exonerated by everyone, and the assault was laughed off by everyone else at the medical school. Cassie left to take care of Nina, who killed herself anyway. So now, Cassie’s life is about turning the tables on men who would act the same way with other women. We’re not really sure just how far Cassie goes in some cases. But then Ryan (Bo Burnam) shows up. He was in medical school with Cassie and Nina, and the two start a relationship, which is naturally going to change when he lets drop that Al Monroe is about to get married.
Promising Young Woman is very much a thriller in most respects. The moments between Cassie and her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) tend to be sardonic, while most of the scenes with Cassie and Ryan are sort of aggressively funny in intentionally dark ways. Their humor with each other is specifically dark, almost as a defense mechanism that comes from their possibly unpleasant past. The rest, though, is a long game of cat and mouse. Cassie is seen by the world as a failure. A former med student turned barista is a status drop of substantial proportions, of course. But when we get to see Cassie operating in what is much more her chosen field of revenge, we can see just how brutally smart she really is.
In one case, she tracks down an old school colleague and invites her to lunch. During the conversation, she learns that this former friend (played by Alison Brie) has not changed her opinion on what happened with Nina and her being assaulted by Al. Cassie, discovering this very disappointing reality, then proceeds to get her former friend drunk (possibly drugging her) and then having a man she has hired take her up to a hotel room. We learn eventually that nothing happened—she didn’t pay someone to assault her—but she did pay for someone to make it look like she had been assaulted, or at least had been stepping out on her husband. It’s devious and it’s brilliant to watch play out.
But it’s not all fun and revenge. Things take a turn when she discovers one person who is truly sorry for what happened with Nina, and a turn back when she learns something else about what happened the night of Nina’s rape. The final act gets very dark and very vicious. It’s entirely appropriate for the movie, but it’s far darker than I expected it to be.
The truth is that men shouldn’t write revenge stories for women. At least they shouldn’t write them without a significant amount of help, because movies like I Spit on Your Grave are very clearly not really written for women. They’re written by men for men and any sort of catharsis that is expected from seeing a woman get violent revenge comes from that revenge being a lot more male-focused and male patterned. Promising Young Woman shows us a style of revenge that feels a lot more real. It’s dangerous, of course. It’s the sort of thing that would likely get Cassie raped and assaulted herself very quickly. But it is also incredibly compelling, and I would imagine, empowering. And that makes it a lot more interesting to see play out.
This was great. It might be some time before I want to watch it again, and it’s hard to say I enjoyed it, but it’s damn good.
Why to watch Promising Young Woman: Hard Candy grew up and got nastier.
Why not to watch: If you’ve ever said, “Boys will be boys” and meant it, you’re gonna have a bad time.